For Art Handler magazine, September 8, 2015 / Issue 1
Beatrice Balcou, in Praise of Gesture. by Rozenn Canevet

Sight Touched by Gestures (1)

Over the last few years French artist Béatrice Balcou has developed a series of performances titled Untitled Ceremony. Numbered as a series, each ceremony creates its own particular chronology around a sequence of events: the act of exhibiting a work of art. These concepts were presented in an exhibition last Spring at the Palais de Tokyo in which Balcou appeared standing behind a trestle table, wrapping and unwrapping packing material around a wooden plank for over four consecutive hours (2). The precision and repetition of the artist’s handling of a generic object – for which she coined the term “Placebo Object”– suggests neither uncertainty nor indecision, but rather conveys a feeling of pure concentration. Untitled Ceremony #03 was performed this summer as part of ‘Walk in Beauty’, Balcou’s recent project at the Casino Luxembourg (3). It was presented outwith the center’s regular opening hours, and executed by amateur performers trained by the artist herself. Untitled Ceremony #03 is the installation of an artwork chosen by Balcou from the Mudam Collection of a neighbouring museum. Trestle tables, wedges, packaging, crates, cardboard boxes are handled with fidelity to their primary function – the staging of an artwork’s methodical conservation for the purposes of exhibition. The gesture is concise, steady, and conscious of a certain distance and intended trajectory. Each element is moved, piece by piece, from one point to another. A dialogue is formed slowly but surely to create a complete aesthetic experience. Enough so, to be moved, just by the sight of it.

On Beauty...

For these reasons, Untitled Ceremony #03 – as well as Balcou’s other performances – acknowledge and pay reference to traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. Although both the Untitled Ceremony #03 and the Japanese tea ceremony belong to a common community of language, it is above all the language of specific gestures, with respect to certain rules, and the art of of hiding something as a way of making it appear which is being referred to here. As things may eludes us, Okakura Kakuzō (4) coined the term ‘Teaism’ and defined it as ‘the art of concealing beauty that you may discover it, of suggesting what you dare not reveal’. Untitled Ceremony #03 embraces this aesthetic duality. As the title of the exhibition indicates, Balcou’s Ceremony invites the viewer to wander into beauty. Usually stored or hidden, handling materials are now displayed, exhibited. They become alive during the performances but rest inert and frozen inbetween time. Resting under white airy stretches of silk hanging halfway down the wall, sufficiently long to hide the materials in question and sufficiently short to allow us to see them.

The artifact and the soul

The viewer may interact with another central object in the space. Due to the complexity its status and placement in time conveys, this element resists a single definition. Referred to as ‘Placebo Oeuvre’ by Balcou, this artifact consists of a replica of the Mudam work initially selected for the project, in this case Vitrine (Film 3) by Bojan Šarčević. Polished by hand and entirely made of wood, it does not intend to replace the original but instead to reveal – and possibly teach - the way in which it was produced and the gestures used to this end. The replica is employed by the performers in preparation for their interaction with the original work. However, instead of being stored after rehearsal, it remains permanently displayed in the exhibition. This constant exposure results in a reversal of its status. It evolves from its place as a mere utilitarian object to a genuine artwork, and from a simple ‘Placebo’, emancipated form its original, to a recording the traces of its various manipulations. By way of continual exposure, the copy reinforces the original. On the one hand, the compelling contrast between the different materials, colors, and textures is made visible. On the other hand, the replica becomes a faithful companion to the original, an extension of its soul, while protecting its autonomy and its existence as a work of art. An artifact is defined in the archeological and anthropological fields as a man-made object. Originally, the term referred to a phenomenon resulting from various experiments, the product of an undesirable consequence, a parasite. Balcou specifically uses this term in her study of the artifact and speaks about ‘a new element in the life of the chosen work’ (5). For the artist, the artifact carries all the mental images associated with the original work, using as examples images found online, that she designates as ghost images. It is a mock-up as well as a trace, able to simultaneously exist as anticipation and projection. The complex time-based duality of the artifact is at the same time an enigma: the failure of the reproduction.

(1) The title of this paragraph is partially inspired by Nathalie Leleu’s article « Mettre le regard sous le contrôle du toucher », Répliques, copies et reconstitutions au XXe siècle : les tentations de l’historien de l’art. », in Cahiers du Musée National d’Art Moderne, n°93, ed. Cnac-GP, automne 2005.
(2) This performance was executed during the exhibition Des choses en moins des choses en plus, « Les collections immatérielles & protocolaires du CNAP au Palais de Tokyo », Curated by Agnes Violeau and Sébastien Faucon in Paris, in 2014.
(3) Béatrice Balcou, Walk in Beauty, Project Room, Casino, Luxembourg.
(4) Okakura Kakuzō, The book of tea, 1906.
(5) From a conversation held between the author and the artist in July 2014.

Translation provided by Marine Pariente Di Carmine