Christian Lapie, memory and history (English)


Philippe Piguet

Lire aussi / Related : Construction / Projection

Translated from the French by Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods

Soon, it will be possible to read the history of the earth in the ground, as in the books.
G. Flaubert

We talk readily of memories of water, but we say nothing about memories of the earth. And yet these are two elements that are essential for the formation of our existence, and both have an equally powerful memory potential. Not only are water and earth part of our life, but, together with air and fire, they number among the basic principles of artistic creation. Christian Lapie’s interest in what Gaston Bachelard called "the prodigious materiality of terrestrial substances" stems from an existential rootedness in the region he comes from. Just as the philosopher of the elementary asserts "that, from the depths of the water, who knows what matter [emerges] to nurture reflection" and that "mud is mirror silver at work" (1), so we are inclined to think that a matter kneaded by memory rises up from within the earth. To say that Christian Lapie’s work can only be basically grasped by that vital link that connects it to the local area--the pays-- is not to reduce it to specific geographical territory, and even less to limit it to a local identity. On the contrary, it is to associate it with all lands and all cultures and all geographies. In so much as the earth is at once here and elsewhere, present and past, and in so much as it is, in the final analysis, a common matter, and primordial component of our world, and even of our flesh, it is a universal element which calls for global thinking.

Over the past fifteen years or so, all those who have followed the development of Christian Lapie’s approach have certainly detected that, removed from all movement and all methodic effect, what there was in his work was a desire to draw up the terms of a dialectic marrying the local with the global. And vice versa, in this dynamic and forward-looking way both of reactivating the parts of a buried memory and of gauging an historical period. From Val de Vesle to Forbach, by way of Porto Velho, Rheims, Berlin, Montmirail, Espeler and so on, there are numerous stages marking the shift of his work and the broadening of its scope, both formally and in terms of content.

In a direct relationship with the idea of walling or walledness, this is first and foremost presented in the dimension of a picture through a whole production of painted images, made using raw materials like chalk, oxides, ashes etc. on large canvases and various other recycled frames. The window idea here was recurrent both because of the importance attached by the artist to the frame concept, and because of the importance of the use he made elsewhere of glass and plays of transparency and opaqueness. His images, which are abstract, showed only rudimentary signs, whose inclusion stemmed just from the intent to stake out a territory. Rust, here, was a favourite colour in so much as it presupposed a deposited, or even stratified time, and Lapie’s works were usually presented as so many exploded fragments. Joining these fragments up was aimed--as we have mentioned earlier--at recounting "the echo of shattered sounds". Sounds of war, in particular. So for the artist this involved neither illustrating anything whatsoever nor serving up another memory, but quite simply of nurturing and encompassing the elements of something material that is consubstantial with it, the better to situate it in relation to an outer environment as powerful as that of the Champagne region.

From the sign of the window to that of the upside-down cross, formalized by the assemblage of bits of fabric and painted metal sheet, such as we find it in his work in the late 1980s, Christian Lapie’s trajectory does not proceed from any particular deliberation. With the remove we have today, we can nevertheless say that it is a desire for volume that took the artist in this direction. What is more, Lapie does not conceal the fact that this has always pre-existed in his work, but that he has striven to offer himself the means to approach this by going about it gingerly, taking one thing after another. Lapie is a countryman, a landlubber, and he moves forward--as he likes to say himself--"nose to the beetroot", alert to the slightest event occurring to give him a universal breadth. He is among those who see what they undertake as no more than a series of apprenticeships, and consider that the work itself comes out of experience that is forever being renewed. So his large crosses arranged on the wall are simply the flattened version of this desire for volume. The idea of the mounting with which they are irresistibly associated, as much by their material nature as by the hallowed reference to which they allude, is backed up by the importance assumed in the work, with time, by all manner of objects, whose function intermingles, at random, the status of mere relics and simple pieces of evidence alike, to use the terms peculiar to archaeology.

In the late 1980s, this desire for volume came to the fore in Christian Lapie’s work in a specific way, involving a parallel activity as exhibition organizer within an association called Silo. This offered him a chance every summer to invite such major artists as Ackling, Friedmann, Cragg, Tremlett, Plensa and Penone to Val de Vesle where they could exhibit their work in the small abandoned church at Courmelois, so this turn of events was not unconnected with the actual development of his own work. It can be likened to another apprenticeship to do both with the sculptural side of things and the management of links between the local and the global. Before even going out to survey the world, Christian Lapie summoned the world to Val de Vesle. This, too, is the power of earth and region : an incredibly magnetic force. This experience, far more than any other, literally bore Lapie along, confronting both him and his work with the scale of a creative process that was at once strong and simple. And the artist knows what he owes to the ever enriching acts of this type of adventure.

The adventure he had in 1992, on a trip to Brazil, marked his work in an even more decisive way. Christian Lapie was invited to exhibit as part of the Earth Summit held that year in Rio de Janeiro, and this turned into a crucial encounter for him. An encounter with another territory, another culture, and another world : the Amazon forest. Here he sized up the social and political reality of a History happening now, a story in the phoney game of his international relations, where a clear conscience is the common currency of the attention paid by developed countries to the Third World. The works he brought back from there--Javisa, five large coloured plaster reliefs shaped like the corrugated iron that is the prized material of the poor, and in the miniature format of mighty fortresses--have all the strength of this new dimension. The raw quality of the shuttering overlaps with the rudimentary aspect of earlier works by Lapie, but they are still laden with an ironical and critical dimension, particularly in the placement on these reliefs of rolls of western wallpaper with exotic patterns--as if beckoning to universal consciousness. In the split second of a work intended to be clear to see, which no longer finds the picture’s surface alone adequate, memory is replenished by an historical reality and, in its quest for volume, Christian Lapie’s work has taken on a nothing less than monumental scale.

This new direction was confirmed by the project he worked on, once back in France : a commission by the city of Rheims. It was a work that "updated the spirit of the place" where the German surrender at the end of the Second World War was signed. The work shifted from picture to table, and acquired an architectural dimension. Lapie recreated, lifesize, the table where the document was signed, using bright pink reinforced concrete, and impressed on the top, in negative as it were, the imprints of children’s plastic guns ; he also drove into it a whole array of truncated bits of iron. In no time, this piece--titled War Game--became the topic of nothing less than a "matter of state", with the widow of the German general who signed the surrender expressing her upset over this representation to no less a person that the French President. The matter then gained momentum : the city, which had taken delivery of the work, eventually refused to install it as planned in a room adjoining the place of surrender, which was precisely where it was most meaningful. Confronted by this situation and the fact that the work, today, has no place, the artist decided to initiate legal proceedings for breach of his moral right. The case is still before the courts.

Over and above its legal and political implications, this adventure--first and foremost an adventure of creation--shows the kind of obstacle an artist may come up against when he operates in the raw area of a recent past. When he resuscitates a memory in the context of a present history, or in other words involves his art in the humdrum aspect of a life, in the flow of a line of thought, and in the flux of truths ascertained. Christian Lapie’s approach nevertheless has to do with situating things on this sort of footing and, in this sense, his art is committed. We all know how committed art disconcerts people, and that it primarily disconcerts consciences with a firm footing. But isn’t the thing peculiar to art precisely that it never leaves us unscathed ? In opening our eyes, be it the better to see reality with, or the better to transcend it, Christian Lapie belongs to that category of artists whose work issues from a duty to memory, in his relationship with History. There is no moralistic intent here, but just a desire to deal with the human drama, in the strongest sense of the term, when it is used to describe the idea of an advancement.

Lapie’s art has a strong tragic dimension that refers to an existential measure in a classical quality with thoroughly contemporary means. If the installations produced by the artist over the past few years resort to all sorts of formal solutions, which may at times be assimilated as much to a hallowed economy--votive objects, altar- and temple-shaped structures, draped figures, etc--as to a posthumous, beyond-the-grave register, death, paradoxically, is not death-dealing here and the sacred or hallowed is not religious. The duty of memory alluded to here is a civic duty--or, more simply put, a human duty. With Christian Lapie, this particular measure is essential, and has often led him to act in contexts that are outside the arena of art. The most recent projects that he has come up with, here and there, are evidence of this : so it is with DÇposition (1996) at the M..... Causeway, in a high-tech cable manufacturing factory ; so it is with Wahn und Wahnsinn (1997) in a farm in the Eifel region where he heaped up logs and sculpted figures ; so it is with Travail/Volupté (1997), in Schlossberg park at Forbach, where he set up a huge procession of seven monumental figures with their pedestals bearing the letters of these two words hewn into them. For him, this way of going about things is a chance to establish a tension between the real world, the world of the at times most trivial daily round, and the universe peculiar to creation in this search for a desire to concertina art and life. And, to repeat ourselves once more, memory and history, past and present, here and elsewhere.

"No, no, the work of art is not aimed at the younger generations. It is offered to the countless population of the dead. Who approve it. Or turn their backs on it." These lines by Jean Genet may quite rightly be quoted by Christian Lapie as evidence, and used to sponsor his thinking. They express the strength of the work at the beck and call of memory ; they express the pregnant quality of memory in the work. "But those dead--the writer continues--I was talking about were never alive. Or I’m becoming forgetful. They were alive enough to be forgotten about, and for the function of their life to get them across this quiet shore where a sign awaits--coming from here--which they recognize". Christian Lapie’s art is aimed at establishing all kinds of signs which work in this way in terms of recognition. And the form, at once archaic and symbolic, that he has recently invented for himself--a powerful, solemn form with the appearance of a primitive idol--is merely the expression of what he calls "vast time", which each one of us has within ourselves.

Christian Lapie’s figures are born from fire, in an age that Jean Genet would call "defunct" (3). They emerge in the dark night of our consciousness. They rise up and impose their presence. The primitive brutality of their dark, mute mass is the only thing that comes to the fore. Arm-, leg- and face-less, they are as one. They are sculpture. They move neither forward nor backward. They are there, intolerably there. They have always been there. For all time, throughout memory, and for all eternity. Cut with a chainsaw, roughly trimmed, huddled in the wood from which they are made, draped in a tar-like matter, Christian Lapie’s figures still manage to have "that appearance, soft and hard alike, of eternity passing".

At the risk of taking readers aback, we must, by way of conclusion, make mention of Courbet and Soulages--the powerful verticality of the former’s figures, and the grim solemnity of the latter’s blacks. "Courbet and Soulages never feel more at ease than in formats whose scope permits a monumental development", wrote Georges Duby in 1980. Isn’t this precisely what we might say about Christian Lapie’s ghostlike figures ? The way they rise up in space, and the way they increase in number to form groups, or even actual ancient theories, certainly has something to do with both the masterful arrangement of a procession like that of L’Enterrememt Ö Ornans, and with a screen sequence of Peintures, the way Soulages would organize them. Here, the same monumental sense is at play, the same cool strength and the same power of resistance. "Courbet and Soulages", Duby continues, "share the same governed love of people, the earth and the fine country life". These words also apply to Christian Lapie.

Philippe Piguet

Imprimer (Print)