by Laura Borràs Castanyer
The multimedia project De l'art si je veux (Art if I want),
on line since December 2004, is led by the charismatic French artist Nicolas
Clauss. The result is the response to a certain challenge and it shows
an admirably balanced blend of freshness and profundity. What is incontrovertible
is that the more you delve into the subtext of the work, the more convinced
you become that Art if I want is a very special gem of digital creation
and at the same time it is much more than one work of art. It is a daring
display, which - I make it clear at the outset - I find completely amazing.
The challenge consisted in creating, in producing a work - in a word,
art - out of an experience that is esthetic and at the same time alive.
The origin of the work is to be found in an experiment that the artist
carried out accompanied by 8 teenagers (5 girls and 3 boys between 11
and 16 years old) from the des Sablons, district of Le Mans, a town that
is famous for its 24-hour Grand Prix motor race.
Art if I want
The title of the work itself is significant. Hermeneutically speaking, it is a remarkable title: "Art if I want". This radical intrusion of subjectivity into artistic criteria strikes me as being profoundly disturbing for the commonplaces of the art world and also sometimes for the indiscriminate support for any simulacrum that smacks of modernity.
The work consists of 9 pieces, like images in a medieval
retable, but what is its intention? To begin with, and bearing in mind
the eminently practical and experimental origin of the project - the workshops
with these privileged young participants - it is clear that it seeks to
project a new look at the esthetic-artistic world that surrounds us. To
this end, the group worked with, and tried to get familiarized with, the
work and styles of some of the most up-to-date (and difficult!) artists:
Arman (born 1928), Daniel Spoerri (1930), Ben (1935), Christian Boltanski
(1944), Maurizio Cattelan (1960), the brothers Dinos (1962) and Jake (1966)
Chapman - alongside the "classics" or canons of modernity such
as (in their different ways) Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Marcel Duchamp
(1887-1968) or Francis Bacon (1909-1992).
Let's talk about the important presence of music. In fact, when once one begins to navigate this tableau, the slightest contact with the words "Nervous system" produces a kind of 'scratch' on 'vinyl'. This doubtless draws on a certain musical aesthetic - of a rapper kind - which coincides with the aesthetics of the images of the figures that move and seem to dance to the rhythm that the user imposes or creates for them. The use of these elements that are common in popular culture is undoubtedly the work's idiosyncratic characteristic. Elements that derive from hip-hop, which is a movement based on rap music, from break dance and from graffiti blend perfectly in the popular aesthetics of this peculiar work, where music and especially rhythm play a very important part. This isn't anything new, but rather a recurrent feature in works by Clauss. (I am thinking above all of Legato, where the user can interact and create the music, becoming composer, conductor, instrumentalist and choreographer all at the same time, but the presence of music is also crucial in the interior of this artistic archipelago, where the islands/works are joined together precisely by what separates them.) It is a Clauss trademark to allow the user to interact and become the composer of a melody just by moving the cursor over the screen.
The musical effects are accompanied by others: pictorial ones (a pistol that reminds us of the famous 'pipe'); verbal ones ("Rest in peace", "Who trust?", messages that can be seen on any urban surface, from a lavatory wall to a façade, and including any public furniture); and iconic ones (a cigarette, a price tag, a bar code, etc.) as different drawings appear that serve as graffiti and which, through the manual dexterity of the spectator-agent's interaction, turn into the improvised dancers of this peculiar symphony of everyday things. When one attains a certain level of 'reading' or refreshing of the work, one can even get the creator to speak, make a poetic note appear, or elicit an explanation of how far the work is a result of the impact that, for example, Jean Michel Basquiat or Andy Warhol have had on him. It is a work that also has a humorous side, with elements that make you smile. A picture that thus serves as a counterpoint to the whole work and is completely inspired by the graffiti on the walls of New York in general, and by Basquiat's work in particular.
Clauss sets us very cleverly in the role of creator, of
'writer', (since graffiti artists are styled 'writers', not 'painters').
In effect, what is crucial to them is the wish to create words on public
surfaces such as walls. It is a wish to express yourself through the creative
process, which is more important than the permanence of the product. Graffiti
are thus temporary, even ephemeral. It is a subversive artistic form that
allows the expression of feelings or ideologies. Here, the reference is
specifically to sadness, to illness, to AIDS, and so on. Obviously, artists
such as Picasso or Arman had already used walls as 'canvases', but the
work of today's artists like Basquiat has made a deep impression on Clauss.
What particularly interests him is the importance of the material, of
the role of design or of painting the material that he uses, of his own
This graffiti-work is an art of recognised artists such as the ones he mentions, but at the same time an eminently anonymous art. Thanks to the city surfaces that are transformed through the spray and aerosol creations, this art leads to a certain revolution that is visual and clearly also political. The streets are turned into improvised galleries of the least tamed of the arts.
This part of the work is wholly inspired by Marcel Duchamp's
work, just as the title indicates. His presence - in image, voice and
creation - is constantly present. It all begins with shadows playing on
the artist's face, and we immediately see blocks of letters that appear
on the screen, and our clicks make the sound of a typewriter. For a moment
(which we have captured in the following illustration), the mixture of
the image, the photo of the artist, the presence of his signature, i.e.
his name, and the titles of his own works - the ready-mades, to be exact
- appear united and dissolved at the same time under the title "titre.txt".
This is of our times, completely up to the minute, the mark of a finished
digital document: a perfect eye-opener. Thus, in this fleeting moment,
I see the philosophy underlying the whole project, which inevitably has
Duchamp as a reference point. His whole career seems designed to show
that the absence of production on the part of the artist does not diminish
the value of his work as art. And the same goes for the assemblage and
the fact that the works were not unique. We are thinking above all of
his ready-mades, where what counts is the choice, the selection, the decision
to remove an object or a series of objects from their natural surroundings,
to present them afresh and rename them, thus giving way to a symbolic
play of representations evoked by the objects chosen. In fact, every selection
is intentional. Is this not the creative philosophy shared by Clauss,
who takes material recorded from everyday experiences (that is to say,
not new, not original) and arranges and presents it under the guise of
There are innumerable possible transformations of this Duchampian
show. Each click allows us a new mixture, a new 'mixtification', which
is accompanied by various voices that talk about the works and about their
creator. Voices of boys and girls who as soon talk of vulgarity as of
provocation. Harsh judgements of his art, which is seen as 'sacrilegious',
'extraordinary', 'vulgar', 'magnificent', 'superb', 'nasty', are found
alongside reflections on his character and his actions, such as: "He
put a urinal in an art gallery", "He messed about with the titles
so that some of his works have nothing to do with the titles", "He
didn't need to be able to paint to be an artist because he used things
that already existed to make art". Lastly, we also find attempts
at interpretation, at understanding, such as: "Duchamp speaks about
painting and sculpture in every one of his works", or that he creates
'realistically', that, like the Dadaists, "he likes to play with
words", and this explains "Rrose Selavy" which, as well
as being transvestism, is also a play on the popular French expressions
"c'est la vie" and "la vie en rose".
We are now in a setting with colours that are typical of Francis Bacon: intense red, 'red-wine red', used since "The Magdalene" (1945-6) - with influences from Poussin and the massacre of the innocents; black, which is omnipresent in the 50's; and a set of greys and whites as in "Head I" (1949) from Richard S. Zeisler's collection.
More than 600 images have been combined into a photo-composition of children's faces which, on a movement of the cursor, display a whole range of deformations exactly in the style of the artist. The superimposition of expressions reveal screams, shouts, laughs which are at the same time gradually deformed so as to become a dynamic homage to Bacon. We are thinking, for example, of the work entitled "Head VI" (1949), a seminal image from the long list of re-workings and quotations from Velazquez's painting of Innocence X, together with this screen grab of a child laughing, so distant in the depiction of the open mouth, and at the same time aesthetically so close.
This contrast makes me think of the dual intention of pastiche
and iconoclasm on the part of both Bacon and Clauss. Even the structure
of the space, almost in the form of a triptych, with another figure that
is also subject to the most varied metamorphoses, recalls the most famous
triptychs or triple studies from 1962 and 1983.
The work allows a play with distance and proximity, and when the cursor moves across the face, deformities are generated that arise from the development and superimposition of features and expressions that create a totally grotesque image. In this sense, the grotesque nature of the 'work' is reinforced by the body that belongs to the face, the body of a dwarf. This is all accompanied by background music and, when we reach the far left-hand side, a young voice is heard speaking of deformity, of cruelty, and even of selfishness. A set of clicks recomposes the fragmented figure. As the artist has explained me, the teenagers have understood Bacon's work by themselves and they have finally said: "Bacon shows us on a external way how we really are inside. And we are cruel, bad, egoists "
Daniel Spoerri is one of the signatories of the Nouveau
Réalisme manifesto proclaiming "new perceptive approaches
to reality" and he is also a member of Fluxus. This part of Art if
you want is devoted to him and is clearly based on works like the one
that was shown, and partially 'consumed', by the visitors to the 1979
In a similar vein, Clauss presents his 'Spoerri' as various
postprandial scenes, where at first a white plate - the only hotspot on
the first screen - makes music and moves, thus generating a faint aura
to and fro on a table partially cleared, where the animated repetition
of the images creates an effect of movement. In the following scenes,
we find ourselves in a restaurant atmosphere, with its accompanying sounds,
where the noise of plates and cutlery mixes with the talk about food and
about Daniel Spoerri, an original artist who, continuing the path of the
ready-mades, makes art out of everyday objects.
On a dark stage, with noises that sound something like a shipwreck, a human puppet comes alive as soon as the cursor touches it. We immediately see a human wheel that moves, approaching and receding, with overlapping voices, just as the views and assessments of contemporary art overlap.
At first the verbal messages are intelligible - there is talk, for example, of 'nouveaux realistes', artists such as Arman and Spoerri - but the moment comes when they seem to revolve to the rhythm of the wheel, and the words become musical notes that are rudely incorporated into the melody of the work.
The wheel turns and turns to the rhythm of this gloomy music, offering us a kaleidoscope of movements of someone seated on a chair and posed as if to play the cello or perhaps the double bass. The turning wheel shows us the movement of the putative instrumentalist, and so we see him turning and twisting in the most varied postures. The teenagers considered that Arman makes accumulations and that's why they asked Clauss to make accumulations of gestures, postures and persons. Behind, blending with it/them, pieces of wood that constitute the materiality of the instrument. At the same time, however, it is a direct intertextual reference to the work of Arman, who did not give a title to the work. I am thinking of works like the series of "Colères" (Rages) of 1961, 1962, 1970 or the untitled works of 1975. The 'rage' of the double bass on the wood is here subtly reproduced, although the violence is attenuated to make way for the materiality of the work's components and for the turning wheel of the human-puppet's syncopated movements, a performer who turns into the material performed, corporal textuality on an artistic stage provided by Arman's own work.
The artistic creation/entertainment of the ever controversial
brothers Dinos & Jake Chapman, on the one hand, and Maurizio Cattelan,
on the other, are represented here by 'Chapman', a piece very much involving
the participation of one of the project's adolescents, Anthony.
All of this against a dismal, bloodstained, black and red background of trenches, where death is the ubiquitous motif, with the continual noise of shots and cries. One of the scenes that we reach in our navigation even takes us to the transition between artists. The use of the image of the Pope as an icon is a subversive, provocative element that links Cattelan to the Chapman brothers. The latter always strive in their work to push back and expand frontiers and cultural taboos. They are aggressive, with a subversive black humour, dealing frankly with topics such as violence, death, torture, sex and war because they want to create 'moral panic'. Cattelan also seeks to provoke people and stir their conscience in order to test the limits of social tolerance. Antony is in tune with their position and says that when he saw Cattelan's La Nona Ora, where the Pope is trapped in a meteorite, he found it a great lark: "I had a good laugh."
The image of Cattelan is included directly in the work, and is then given movement and life as it is reshaped and manipulated. Here lies another of the strong points that are common to all the fragments of the piece and which, from a philosophical point of view, expressly links to the Chapman brothers' thoughts: in a world where artistic reproduction is a fact, it is impossible to distinguish between original and reproduction.
What's more, in alluding to the title of the Chapman brothers' exhibition at the Kunsthaus in Bregenz, 'Explaining Christians to Dinosaurs', the works of the British artists are fused with those of the Italian.
After all, the whole work provides striking evidence of
the provocative principle that the Chapman brothers have chosen as the
hallmark of their work. In a way, Clauss is nodding in the direction of
the Chapmans' actions in their 'intervention', for example, on the work
of Goya. It is well known that the brothers bought a complete set of what
has become the most revered series of prints in existence, Goya's Disasters
of War. And to be able to see which was the popular opinion, let's remember
what "The Guardian" commented at that time: "It is a first-rate,
mint condition set of 80 etchings printed from the artist's plates. In
terms of print connoisseurship, in terms of art history, in any terms,
this is a treasure - and they have vandalised it." They explained
it like this: "We had it sitting around for a couple of years, every
so often taking it out and having a look at it," says Dinos, until
they were quite sure what they wanted to do. "We always had the intention
of rectifying it, to take that nice word from The Shining, when the butler's
trying to encourage Jack Nicholson to kill his family - to rectify the
situation," said Jake. "So we've gone very systematically through
the entire 80 etchings," continues Dinos, "and changed all the
visible victims' heads to clowns' heads and puppies' heads." The
"new" work was called "Insult to Injury", and the
exhibition in which it was shown for the first time, at Modern Art Oxford,
was called "The Rape of Creativity".
We are now considering what is undoubtedly the most 'textual' work in Art if I want. Here the allusion is to the artist Ben Vautier, with works like the following, where the meta-artistic reflection is very obvious.
However, what stands out is the extent to which Clauss wants
to disorientate us regarding the creative boundaries The first thing we
see is the statement: "anybody can set a wheel on a stool",
in an obvious allusion to Duchamp's work from 1913, Bicycle Wheel, which
presents a bicycle wheel mounted on a kitchen stool and which was intended
as a decoration for the artist's studio. It was the first of a long series
of ready-mades. Marcel Duchamp started the tradition of selecting objects
and exhibiting them because he was convinced that. "Aesthetic actions
should derange the set of symbolic representations that are spontaneously
associated with these forms."
On a black ground, which emphasises the corporeality of the white words, appear the replies that various visitors to the l'Espal exhibitions have given to the question: "What is art?"; they first appear on the screen as a few pixels, but they then grow in size. Here we are faced with some reflections that quickly become aphorisms or that turn into lapidary expressions, while others are simply trite and stupid. "Every work has a history." "Art is amusing." "Stop painting nude women." Everyone is an artist." "Art can be everything or nothing." And so on. In this stream of declarations, which go from the sublime to a simple insult, we find a host of opinions and the controversy that contemporary art has generated. It is a mixture of written text and speech, and out of this litany of contributions, we can pick out opinions that reflect the most classical views of art: "It gives a certain aesthetic pleasure", "it generates feelings", "it communicates what cannot be said in words", "something is art when it has no utility", and more provocatively: "To be an artist, you don't need money; you only need to be heard and get your idea across", "We don't always understand it, but when we do, we see that it has sense", "the spectators can think what they like", "We sometimes include as art things that are stupid", "what is art for us is not art for others".
The memory of objects is evoked in this piece by the power of things to let us relive our past, which we do not want to forget and which comes back to us through a look, a touch, the reconstruction of memory - in a word, through idealisation. The work of Boltanski is present as a background to this Memo since the different participants in the project invented a biography for him and, in a way similar to his work, it is constructed as a fragmentation of reality that is reconstructed, presented and experienced through objects, collages, montages, mementoes; the object and the recollection are used here as the key that opens the Pandora's box of our life's reminiscences. Like Boltanski, Clauss seems to invite us to reconstruct and create our own personal history starting from objects. It is a personal, capricious route that is somewhere between individual and collective memory, remembering and forgetting, zones of light and shade and, above all, between art and truth since it shows how can we transform everyday objects in a piece of art, this "Memo" takes part of "Art if I want".
When we enter this piece, we see a dark stage with a chair
supporting Munch's 'The Cry', a true icon of the modern experience of
feeling alone in a crowd. Through this direct reference, we might say
that Clauss is in a way following in the wake of artists such as Erró,
Robert Fishbone and Andy Warhol, who also cite this Munch canvas in their
work and re-use it to generate their own messages. They appropriate it,
and thus devalue its originality, and in the context of the consumer society
that pop art is aimed at, they throw doubt on art as a consumer product.
Munch executed four versions of the painting, of which the most famous are a tempera on cardboard version (measuring 83.5 x 66 cm) in the Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway (shown below), and an oil, tempera, and pastel on cardboard (measuring 91 x 73.5 cm) in the National Gallery (shown to the right), also in Oslo. A third version is also owned by the Munch Museum, and a fourth is owned by Petter Olsen. In 1895, Munch transformed the picture into a lithograph, so that the image could be reproduced all over the world. This ease of reproduction means that we find 'The Cry' on t-shirts, bags, mugs and neckties, which evidences its status as an icon, but at the same time this trivialisation debunks the work for a public that 'consumes' it in these various formats. But let us concentrate on Clauss's piece, on CLauss's "Cry".
We have a dark stage, where the red and black of the painting predominate. Without clicking, and while Shockwave is loading, a black shadow passes in front of the face of a person who is seated at the side of the painting and who seems to imitate its gesture of desperation. A mournful continuous rhythm accompanies the notes that appear when the cursor is placed over the central figures. When we click, there are new notes and sounds, and different people replace the initial character and, with each new click, we hear their explanations of Munch's painting. We experience, then, a whole series of personal descriptions of 'The Cry', thoughts on what the painting inspires to different people.
And all of this on a stage where we find reproductions in movement of the painting's most striking motifs, such as the face, which releases the great cry that is mute with horror. There is a background music of syncopated beats and a child crying can occasionally be heard. This disturbing painting is 'explained' for the visitors to the exhibition while some of them act it out, so that they themselves become the person who screams, since they are positioned just inside the painting on the screen that Clauss has turned into a canvas. We thus get readings/interpretations that talk of desperation, panic, anxiety, fear or the terror of someone who seems to be frightened in the middle of a storm. Others feel that the cry verbalises suffering, a cry of agonising horror that derives from the pain of knowing that there is no way to avoid the suffering, and so the painting is full of violence, of menace, of unease. People repeatedly mention the haggard, deathly, horrified face, as well as the malaise in our souls when we are faced with human misery. They speak of the man on the bridge, of his age - some say he is not a child, but an old man - of his protruding eyes, of his distorted shape indicating that he is sick. People also speculate about why his hands are about his head and, in this regard, some think that he is covering his ears as not to hear the pain of the world, the cries of the world, the misery of humans. Others think that he is someone from hell or that the moment that the painting captures and represents is related to the destructive Apocalypse, or alternatively that it is just before or after a catastrophe or an earthquake. In reference to the image, we know that Munch wrote:
"I was walking along a path with two friends - the sun was setting - suddenly the sky turned blood red - I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence - there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city - my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety - and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature".
This is why there are critics who believe that the central
figure is not emitting a cry but reacting in desperation to the cry that
is 'passing through nature'. In 2003 astronomers declared that they had
identified the moment when the work was painted. It seems that the eruption
of Krakatoa in 1883 caused some very unusual sunsets throughout Europe
in the winter of 1883-1884, which Munch might have captured perfectly
in his picture. There are others who maintain that Munch was inspired
by a mummy that was sent to the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1889,
or an Inca mummy in the Natural History Museum in Florence. We must also
remember that Munch's sister, Laura, was a manic-depressive confined to
the mental hospital situated at the foot of the Ekeberg hill, the landscape
that the painting depicts: Oslo fjord as seen from Ekeberg.
1- It is quite obvious that the reflection is clearly artistic and that the work under analysis must be taken as a work of digital art, not of literature. All the same, it is a good example of hybrid creation, straddling different borders and genres. Consequently, it is very useful to take the fundamental reflection that lies behind Art if I want and extrapolate it into the terrain of literature, of digital textuality, since the textual, verbal, oral, calligraphic, typographic and musical message is always present and takes on a marked protagonism in several of the pieces that make up the work.