Untimely, Eight Not Entirely Well-Mannered Notations on the Art of Mireille Loup
"Developing all the powers one feels in oneself--an excellent program. . . . I perceive a host of desires and passions that will have to be mastered. Love is powerful. Thirst is powerful. Anger is powerful. Sadness, boredom, self-loathing are poor companions. But you have to live with them all the same." Live with them all the same, and while we're at it, live with love, thirst, the host of desires and passions. And live with others, obviously, in addition to living with yourself. This is what the philosopher Alain has to say in his Propos (vol. 2, 1920), where he reminds us just how much existence is no bed of roses and even less an affair to be easily done away with.
This notion of life as the "obstruction" implied by Alain's words is essentially what feeds Mireille Loup's work. Through narrative photography and fiction or nonfiction texts, Loup's art continuously draws on life as it unfolds, a complicated mix of more or less controllable reality, future plans, and vexations. A form of art therapy? Nothing is less certain. An ironic penchant for debunking myths gives rise to a caustic form of expression that leaves us feeling that Loup is not inherently bent on perfect health. Thus, where Alain would rekindle the last flames of humanism by adding, "There must be order inside of me: all of these chained monsters must make up one man, and not a lunatic with a hundred faces," Loup adopts the opposite point of view: taking this internal disorder for what it is, determining who this madman (or, in this instance, madwoman) with a hundred faces really is.
1-There is no felicitous identity
The multiple of the face, precisely. Chacun de mes visages (Each of my faces, 1992-), an open-ended series of photographs, has been programmed from the very first image to finish only upon the artist's death. Here, the artist as a budding young woman, there, in an antique pose, or, in an extreme close-up, crying. Further on, as a glamour girl, or captured by the lens in a pose that goes back to the repertory of Christian saints. "Each of my faces is an autobiographical study . . . , a critical study of identity through photography and its different genres," explains Loup. Presented in the form of a frieze, refusing any chronological order, such a body of work establishes identity as much as it disperses it. A representation that is both given and taken away, making the subject anonymous yet impossible to miss.
This combination of giving and taking away that has emerged with the decline of humanism is not unrelated to a constant of contemporary creation--the impossibility of total access to the figure. This impossibility, which has sometimes been overused (the disguises of Cindy Sherman's Still Lives series of the 1980s), may simply be developed through simple recourse to the image. In a more suggestive way, acting and comedy may be invoked, notably through recourse to theatrical expression. Henri (1994), a video piece, finds the artist repeating a declaration of love addressed to a fictional character. The impression is that of a painful birth of determination, even if it is played out here in a tragi-comic mode. The discourse behind the declaration is not clear; the identity itself remains elusive and remains a seed of unhappiness (whether major or minor, it is in any case unhappiness).
- An aesthetic of the injured body
Les Oignons (Onions, 1994): a series of portraits in oval frames à la "Our Noble Grandfather" or 1930s films, shows people crying. Existential pain? No, the flow of tears results in fact from peeling onions. As all professional manipulators know, the line between real unhappiness and what looks like it may be very thin.
With Loup, the artificial turns out to be an acknowledged figure of style. When placed in the service of visual simulations modeled on classical iconography (playing with the notion of pose, for example) or the photo-roman picture story, it can express various problematics differently from the illusionism of Les Oignons. Such is the case with Hyper (1998), a veritable collection of intimate tragedies and human figures in crisis. Once again taking the form of a photographic frieze, Hyper offers a catalogue of images that illustrate fairly contemporary forms of excess--combat, depression, disgust, ecstasy, talk shows. Views that are combined but each time autonomous--a woman crying, a deserted urban landscape, someone vomiting into the toilet or urgently popping a pill. Certain screened images seem to come directly from the TV. The hysteria arising from this vision is tempered by the rustling sound of countryside and wind, a highly contradictory backdrop of bucolic atmosphere. An homage to the injured body of this end of the millennium and its fantasies of harmony.
- Aestheticizing exasperation
What runs throughout Loup's work is in fact the exasperated figure. For anyone willing to take a good look around, there is nothing surprising about this presence of wounded human beings. The exhausted faces of our peers and ourselves, deadly dull reality, ravaged life itineraries, futures that are passé before they've even been vanquished. As a general rule, this is where we are. Which results in bodies that weigh heavy, that yield to a powerful triumph of gravity equaled only by its irrevocably fantastic mirror image, the body in flight (cf. current ads for cordless phones that multiply images of people telephoning from the open sky, as free as birds, with bodies that have become lighter than air).
In his Sleeping Japanese (1997), an austere series of photos devoted to faces of office workers sleeping on public transport, Martin Parr has given us a kind of reverse image of Japanese society and its cult of productivity. In a similar vein, Loup has photographed Les Fatigués (Tired People, 1997), another very contemporary fresco, inspired this time by Peter Handke's Essay on Fatigue. Forty-two anonymous portraits are shot as is, with an instamatic, avoiding any attempt at formal effects (and thus at formal trickery). The features are haggard or in the process of becoming so, just as time, the disintegrater of life, corrodes and erodes the original smoothness of the face. The work is doubly distinctive--caustic on the one hand, surprising on the other. The causticity arises from the way Loup makes a point of exhibiting Les Fatigués against a background of recorded noises and messages dealing with health, performance, or the cult of success, the heroism of today's neo-liberal era. The surprise, meanwhile, lies in the amazing, unexpected, even abnormal beauty of these worn-out faces--a patina of anxiety, depth, and resistance that comes close to being a paradoxical exaltation of humanity.
Tired, exasperated bodies disclosing their wear and tear. The action itself winds up being tense, tetanized, unable to let go. All that remains is the dream, the vengeance, the revenge of the real hopelessly devoted to itself. A dream of faraway places, of other landscapes, borne by the hope of an existence that would have to be better. This is what is expressed in a series of photographs such as Les faux départs (The False Departures, 1997), with their unspeakable yet tender cruelty. "This time, it was decided, he was leaving," indicates a terse phrase in capital letters stamped directly on the surface of the image--a young man slouched in depths of an armchair, shivering with cold in a makeshift interior, unable to move. "Some day, obvously, she would leave"--there she is, young and sad, lying down with a wandering gaze, unable to lift her physical weight, while he watches her with an idiotic, domineering look on his face. "Going to Acapulco/To change my world/To change my life" says the song. "There, all is order and beauty/Richness, quiet, and pleasure," replies Baudelaire, raising the bid. In the meantime, it's here and now, and no one's leaving. Such is the law of inertia. The world weighs heavy, the body weighs heavy, and movement is abolished.
- Parenthesis: the work of art as laxative
A fan of the photographic narrative (notably Christophe, Anne, le photographe et leurs amis [Christophe, Anne, the Photographer and Their Friends, 1994]), Loup also cultivates the art of the novel. A truism: there are always stories because there is displacement in the order of things. This is the source of narrative--giving an account of a movement, describing it, justifying it, condensing it. Within such a framework, Le devenir de Lise (Lise's Destiny, 1996, unpublished) is intended to be a Bildungsroman where the author's education is a product of self-analysis plus investigation into the peculiar seductions of the narrative utterance. Which explains the chapter headings that signal this double intention in the spirit of the preclassical novel (the picaresque tradition in Spain or Defoe's Moll Flanders): "Where the author situates her protagonists and speaks of love in order to captivate the reader," "Where the author gives a lugubrious tone to the second chapter," "Where the author deals with illness as a reflection of anxieties and thumbs her nose at rationalistic medicine," and so on.
Among Loup's significant writings, we may single out one dealing with the fart, "Premier traité à propos du pet" (First Treatise on the Fart), a text inserted into a pseudo-fictional diary entitled Il faudra qu'un jour je pense à me marier (Some Day I'll Have to Think About Getting Married, 1994). Is this avowed interest for the fart an instance of scatological coquetry on the artist's part? A concession to a mood given over to gore? Not exactly, insofar as the artist, going beyond the implicit vulgarity of the theme, seizes the opportunity to argue an authentic, albeit comic position. The philosophy of the fart is certainly not new: it has already attracted many great French minds, from the anonymous writers of the eighteenth-century Bibliothèque Bleue to the humorist Jean-Marie Bigard, one of the latest in date (with a joke that would suffice to earn him an entry in the dictionary of the Académie Française, Bigard insists on the liberating, hedonistic, and democratic side of the fart: farting does you good, and without exception, everyone farts, from the lovely woman sitting in the last row of the theater to the president of France). What Loup has to say on the subject of the fart, meanwhile, is that it is not without social powers, notably that of distinction (Pierre Bourdieu would do well to mobilize his august university, the Ecole des Hautes études en Sciences sociales, around this question): "You don't fart in front of just anyone," remarks the artist. "The fart fosters a close tie with reality. . . . No possible idealization in the presence of the fart," etc. We are not far from La Rochefoucauld, whose sense and pragmatism of observation seem to have served as a model.
By extension, we may deduce that the fart is more than a theoretical subject for Loup. The artist's creative approach also has to do with evacuation--putting outside, taking out of oneself what no longer belongs inside. "Farting" works of art, so to speak, expelling them like the intestines expel the fart, in an act of decompression--the work of art as a laxative formula.
- Return to the theme: the intimate but without a capital I, and which we shall carefully follow with a question mark
Loup's work may also be situated in the context of the very many forms of recent artistic expression that have opted for the intimate as their preeminent subject. In passing, it may be said that this is not without contradiction: the intimate, by essence a closed territory of true secrets, remote passions and catastrophes, adapts rather badly to its revelation, which is, in any case, paradoxical.
For Loup, the intimate means photos of herself or close acquaintances outside of public life, secret formulas of affection brought to light, personal stories placed in the public arena. This is the case, among others, with the series entitled Les Affectifs (Emotional Beings, 1995), which includes several polyptychs showing six identical photos of a male or female figure, each one coupled with a phrase derived from the artist's interview with the subject: "It seemed difficult to him to get involved in a new relationship with as much ambition." "She let him watch her." "He felt like he was capable of incredible follies." "She'd met him the night before." As the artist describes her procedure for Les Affectifs, "In the course of a prior meeting, each model is asked to talk about a subject that affects him or her emotionally during the shooting session. . . . The caption under the images comes from a phrase pronounced by [the model], bringing out the essence of his or her remarks. Nonetheless, the responsibility of the photographer, the way she has staged the scene and the fact that she's listening, must be taken into account, so as not to maintain that it's documentary photography."
The intimate according to Mireille Loup, need we insist, is yet another moving target, and specifically an opportunity to ironize over the convention of contemporary art that consists of exploiting one's intimacy, or what is presented as such, in the form of an exhibition. De ces couples qui se sont tant aimés (About Those Couples Who Loved Each Other So Much, 1998) offers a similarly ironic essay on figures of the contemporary couple in totally stereotyped situations--the couple in bed, the couple eating, the couple in a landscape, the tight-knit couple, etc. Everyone will most certainly recognize themselves in these images and will admit at the same time how much the recounting of the intimate is a high-risk operation. Indeed, what is most personal can wind up becoming the worst imaginable banality.
The tragedyof the intimate made into a subject of art, as we have already suggested, lies in the principle of an incoherent display. Either it is intimate, and nothing should pierce the impenetrable perimeter of the secret. Or, conversely, it is destined for the public, for general scrutiny, for the enormous eye of those who are starving for spectacles, and at that point, nothing secret would be displayed; the secret would cleverly be chosen as an artistic subject. In fact, the "intimate" that is supplied, not without complacency, by late twenthieth-century art is not intimacy but mimicry. Petty merchants of appearances that teach nothing about authentic intimacy. Does begging viewers to let their imaginations carry them into young Ms. Hotbottom's panties, that fictional epicenter of the hidden, really amount to offering them nirvana? The pathetically naive poses of Rebecca Bournigault, the Bartolomeo family's breakfasts, Nobuyoshi Araki's touchy-feely sessions, the petty-bourgeois lesbianism of Sadie Benning, the flagwaving display of Elke Krystufek's ass, all amount to cocktail-party intimacy, the intimacy of the performance that claims to be discreet while bellowing last and loudest, a remake of the ancient Platonic pseudos. Precisely the kind of cheating with which Loup has no intention of compromising, unless it's by removing her mask, and thus not hiding the fact that she's cheating and play-acting.
- Surviving the real
The West has been in a phase of decline for some time. As Moderns, we were at least able to hold on to the notion of Utopia, the therapeutic recourse to the glorious future. In becoming Postmoderns, we have had to renounce these whims, and with them, the future. Plans, yes, probably, because consciousness is like that, but with no assurance that things will be better. Reality exaggerates, in some way--it is there, rich, given, promising, but also closed, inaccessible, the factual banishment of the possibility.
In the process, it becomes clearer just how much Loup's artistic universe continually rejoins the powerful maxim set forth by Georges Bataille in his Somme athéologique, probably a rather summary maxim, but certainly not very far from the truth: desire is always infinite, whereas life is invariably finite. Does desire push toward the inaccessible? Through weakness, impotence, or concern for preservation, life will contain energy within an impermeable space ruled by absence, moderation, and contrition. This disproportion, this distance gives rise to human tragedies. An eternally insurmountable difference between what is and what is desired, in this psycho-sensory stagnation where reality principle and pleasure principle rub up against each other without actually mating. Indeed, disorder lies in the order of things; it has nothing to do with an abnormal debasement seizing upon things solely to disrupt their organization. Quite the contrary--it is the normal state of reality, its own way of arranging itself, uncontrollable, ignorant of existential geometries. The disorder as norm which so many hypocrites, from priests to hawkers of Freudian couches have found so interesting to promote as a product of the abnormal.
Loup's art, as we've seen, is an art of the living. It exploits neither pictorial capital nor whining celebration of form. It speaks of bodies not pulled out of life but on the contrary, in their proper situation (from Sartre to Guy Debord, with a pinch of Mister Bean for the occasion). The living is disorder; it is the dream perpetuated without any goal of accomplishment ; it is remorse and failures. Myself, namely the one who has to survive all that, who has to survive an exaggerated reality.
- The self-portrait (the individual but as undivided as possible)
This brings us, all things considered, and after a long, circular detour, to the self-portrait, the sculpture of the self. The portrait of the artist as artist acquired at the end of a strategic recourse to "crypto-figures." All of these bodies grappling with the underhanded reality that Loup shows, here and there, whether derided or not (but always in a friendly, fraternal way, as we shall see), all these others of herself whose portrait she executes differently each time, seeing the identity diverge--all these people, obviously, are myself. Yes, me the artist, the summit of narcissism, of the expectation of love and recognition that cannot be fulfilled by one body alone. Myself restored through all the others (all my others), through the intermediary of a symbolic exchange where the ego is disseminated in the other, or the other of oneself. like the truth underneath the makeup.
The dissemination of oneself? In other words, the impossibility of totally presenting oneself on the stage of art, as a glorious, self-important body (in the manner, today incomprehensible, as it were, of a Dürer, whose original art of the self-portrait was among the first to be accompanied by the signing of the works, the supreme form of individualization)? There is already a period effect there--how can we still believe in the perfect body, the sovereign image, the very usefulness of the person? The postmodern Adam is limited to a decidedly material Western paradise, having only to make sublime values, which, in matters of the body, he prefers to find in the perfection substitutes called top models and Chippendales, the post-Hollywood expressions of the divine corpus. This is also an effect of modern art itself, which has made use of the real body to the point of no return, the abolition of the frontier between incarnation and representation--Vito Acconci's performances, Gina Pane's public mutilations, Martina Abramovic and Ulay's experiences of physical endurance-- all of which has been carried out in the name of art by speaking less of art than of the body as an emblem wrested from socialization. Without forgetting one last stumbling block, this time a product of a symbolic economy that is undated, transhistoical: every society has the body that it deserves.
Marked by the primacy of the traumatic body, Loup's work ultimately refers the viewer back to the evidence of this human condition that is poorly accepted, above all depressive, rarely happy, and whose Westernness winds up being its main characteristic. Nothing benign, in fact, if we remember that Western culture, albeit eaten away by pessimism, pretends to be one of happiness, harmony, and reconciliation between the self and the world. With the injured bodies that she offers the eye, Mireille Loup is already forcing the viewer's natural penchant for identification. But this is no less an invitation to rethink the notion of the "individual," which is now aligned with a point of view that is at once particular and global. Very ambiguous, incidentally, this notion of the "individual," the etymology of which, it should be remembered, does not allow the subject to be viewed separately from anything whatsoever, and society most of all. This is precisely the endless tragedy of the Western world--whoever inhabits it can only conceive of him/herself as tied to the social order (the individual as an "undivided" figure); whoever inhabits it tries nonetheless to become an autonomous figure within it. The break inevitably lies waiting on the sidelines, and its final consequence, sometimes attained, is schizophrenia (in Greek, the "split mind").
- "Untimeliness", new form of resistance
Mireille Loup is thus annoying. Do we expect art to feed the soul? She sends us back to the minor but non-disposable part of ourselves: problems of self-image, little amorous excitements, the grip of the everyday. Are we hoping to be sublimely transported by creation? The Loupmobile rattles; it won't take off, keeps you on the ground, close to the world. You were looking for an answer at least? There are questions above all, even if ultimately no one is sure of anything. Art should relax us from life, asserts classic common sense. It should make life more interesting than art, asserts modern common sense. Mireille Loup couldn't care less and doesn't opt for either possibility. Her art doesn't relax from anything; it is agitated and it agitates what existence agitates. As a result, it is rather an untimely form of life. A means of resisting existential inertia and standing up to it. A resistance.
Translated from French by Miriam Rosen
In Mireille Loup, monographic catalogue, co-ed. Gallery Les filles du calvaire, Paris, 1998