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Votive Forms: Julien Creuzet

by Laura Herman

 

Walking through an exhibition by the French Caribbean artist Julien Creuzet is like roaming a map without territory or frontiers. Not restrained by the imperial imposition of the Cartesian plane, his artworks—which tell stories of displacement, trade, and diaspora—invite variable mobilities and visibilities. Composed of songs, poetry (which offers Creuzet a versatile platform to develop a multitude of elusive associations and anecdotes of cultural syncretism), videos, and assembled objects and materials, his installations are spaces for transoceanic transactions and cultural exchanges between past and present. Often synesthetic in nature and swerving among a variety of languages, including French, English, Creole, and Portuguese, they deploy different material, affective, and ritualistic layers. This “drifting” approach was particularly apparent in his dual 2018 Paris solo exhibitions at Fondation d’entreprise Ricard and Bétonsalon – Centre d’art et de recherche, where landscapes and bodies of water brought to the surface narratives from l’outre-mer, France’s overseas administrative territories.1

 

Prior to our visit to his 2019 show Allied Chemical & Dye at High Art Gallery in Paris, I complied with the “impartial gaze” Creuzet suggested in his preamble over email; he advised me not to consult any press documentation in favor of an unmediated, live experience. If the press release is supposed to account for the meaning of art, then poetry, in Creuzet’s work, fosters a kind of kinship to it. In this exhibition too, a poem disguised as a press release encapsulated all the artworks on view. In comparison to his past installations Opéra-archipel, ma peau rouge, henné (2015) at Frac Basse-Normandie, Caen, or les lumières affaiblies des étoiles lointaines […] (2019) at Palais de Tokyo, Paris—departing respectively from the experience of living in the archipelago and the act of crossing a public space—this show offered something different. What set the High Art Gallery exhibition apart was the way in which Creuzet has created reticent shapes each consenting to a form of silence that activate the imagination of anyone encountering them. Rather than claiming an overarching theme, the show functioned like an ecosystem in which forms abounded and freely interacted.

The artworks, by virtue of their relationship to human scales, were intended to be experienced as live encounters from body to body, or as person-to-person conversations. Suspended like pendulums from fixed points in the ceiling, large, vertical assemblages—reminiscent of “choreographic objects”—gently twirled under the influence of passing visitors whose bodies set the air in motion. Although, rather than speaking of objects or sculptures, Creuzet—who is highly skilled at using precise language—prefers to call them “forms.” Even more specifically, he describes these assemblages as “votive forms” that are both mysterious and opaque, and which forge emotional connections and spiritual relationships. The effect is sensuous and absorbing.

Informed by an Antillean poetics, Creuzet refuses to privilege certain forms above others. Instead, elements are simply accumulated by means of repetition, thwarting the categorical sites of alterity. The forms conspicuously seek to emancipate themselves. They learned from the past and continue doing so; they simply need to exist by themselves. As living entities, his assemblages and collages break with one of the most fundamental conventions of the visual arts, namely the material object, such as the cast bronze sculpture. Instead, Creuzet injects energy into his forms by inserting what he calls “imaginary batteries.” By adding pieces of clothing and geographical markers, he endows them with a special presence. Heterogeneous elements gleaned from places all over the world—collected, purchased, or manufactured—enter into new relations within and across forms, as in Ils ont fait du mal à coeur / ils ont fait du mal à mon corps / ils ont fait du mal à coeur / ils ont fait du mal à mon corps (…) (2019), for example, a composite installation made of disparate, sometimes antagonistic, synthetic and organic elements. Grains of rice trapped in a plastic bag combined with a seashell and dried cotton plants evoke the violent history of distant colonies overlaid with today’s global food economy in which rice represents the staple food of more than half of the world’s population. Rope literally emerges as a common thread. Often entangled and knotted, it binds up amorphous forms to the point where the individual elements become indistinguishable.

As often is the case in Creuzet’s exhibitions, the rooms are filled with an upbeat rhythm, an aural companion to the listening bodies. Like a siren song, the energetic soundtrack, featuring the artist’s voice, leads you to the seven-minute animated film mon corps carcasse / se casse, casse, casse (…) (2019), which collages the Kepone molecule, a toxic and persistent pesticide, with an evocation of contaminated Martinique banana plantations. The repressive colonial regime of slavery is inextricably linked with current social and environmental injustice, and the lively score, a song of both lament and rebellion, offers a counterweight and an assertion of humanity.

Creuzet’s growing hesitance to use academic formalisms—over-theorizing could cloud the meaning and experience of the work, although he has allowed others to refer, for example, to Édouard Glissant’s key concepts of relation, opacity, and creolization, or Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe’s emphasis on “thinking of complementarities rather than of difference”—has led him to an insistence on nonreductive pluralism that resists singular interpretations. In spite of all its mystery, Creuzet’s work is generous enough to tap into a multitude of emotions and experiences.

 

1. Both shows carried long titles that together formed a poem in loop, evidently written by the artist himself, to accompany the whole: All that sea distance, for the oil filaments of the manchineel to stop our heartbeats. – The rain made that possible (…) at Fondation d’enterprise Ricard, Paris and The rain made it possible, in the wake of the angry Morne, the mountain has been silent. Impacts of war, of missile drops. After all this, perhaps the volcano will protest in turn.—All the sea’s distance (…) at Bétonsalon – Centre d’art et de recherche, Paris.

 

Julien Creuzet (b. 1986, Blanc-Mesnil, lives and works in Paris) is a visual artist and poet, he actively intertwines these two practices via amalgams of sculpture, installation, and textual intervention that frequently address his own diasporic experience. Recent solo shows include HIGH ART, Paris (2019); Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2019); Fondation d’Entreprise Ricard, Paris (2018); Bétonsalon – Centre d’art et de recherche, Paris (2018). His work has also been presented in a large number of group shows: Aujourd’hui aura lieu, Palais de Tokyo’s off-site exhibition during the 12th Gwangju Biennale (2018); A Cris Ouverts, the 6th edition of the Ateliers de Rennes, Biennale d’Art Contemporain (2018); the Ren- contres de Bamako, 11th Biennale Africaine de la Photographie (2017), the 14th Biennale de Lyon (2017). He is the recipient of the 2019 Camden Arts Centre Emerging Artist Prize at Frieze, London.

Laura Herman (b. 1988, Brussels) is an alumna of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and holds a master’s degree in comparative modern literature from Ghent Uni- versity. She currently serves as a curator at La Loge, a Brussels-based space dedicated to contemporary art, architecture, and theory, where she has curated, among other projects, exhibitions by Zoë Paul and Carey Young. She is editor of De Witte Raaf, a bimonthly art journal distributed in Belgium and the Netherlands, and a theory tutor in the Contextual Design department at the Design Academy Eindhoven. In 2019-2020 Herman is curator of The New Sanctuary, the twelfth satellite program at Jeu de Paume, Paris; CAPC, Bor- deaux; and the Museo Amparo in Puebla. She is the coeditor of The Floor Is Uneven. Does It Slope? (Mousse Publishing, 2019).

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