Theory and critique of art in the Caribbean
Sharing essential texts on Caribbean contemporary art
Aica Caraïbe du Sud and the Fondation Clément
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© Patrick CHAMOISEAU – 2006
AUPRES D’ERNEST BRELEUR.
Remarkable work, Open work, Tout-Monde, Poetics of Relation, complicity
Patrick Chamoiseau revealed this text himself at the Reconstitution d’Ernest Breleur exhibition in Fort-de-France in 2006. It was then published in Artheme No. 16 in April 2006. It is part of the literary genre of Meditations, which consists in the poetical expression of emotions.
Patrick Chamoiseau outlines the qualities of remarkable works. They are works that are open, constantly renewed, and endlessly interpretable. In addition to being bold and liberated from all norms, they inspire, question the lines of the real, stimulate meditation, open up new pathways and dare utopia.
It is better to feel complicity with the work than to try to explain or interpret it; erudite words are impotent to describe it because a remarkable work expresses everything it has to say all by itself.
The relationship of Breleur’s work with death and the slave trade is subsequently evoked, with the author examining the components of the work: horsehair line, neon lights, the void, the modules which are both united and solitary, the fragmentation of the structure, the diversity and individuation of each form which puts the work at the centre of the poetics of Relation.
ON ERNEST BRELEUR.
First, a general feeling.
This work is important. The artist is considerable. The period of this work is decisive.
Now, let us get to know these three terms: important, considerable and decisive.
The impulse one feels before work like this, which is true for all major works, is to try to explain it.
Let the lines move.
Defer the explanation.
An important work, precisely because it is important, displaces the lines of our reality. It shakes up our beliefs. Beliefs which allow us to exist; which feed our concept of all things beautiful, true, just, relevant, beneficial, etc. The need for an explanation comes to us like a reflex.
The desire to explain is comparable to anxiety in the face of adversity. Like the impulsive organisation of a safe base when the storm rages. An explanation removes the wrinkles and the shadows; it takes density away. An explanation is debilitating because it lets us remain unaltered; it provides us with a way out of surrendering our imagination to the adventure of the work. Its stops us growing from it, or growing with it. An explanation, which cannot keep silent, is often an easy option, at worst an impoverishment.
Before the work, do not remain unaltered.
Legend says that James Joyce never explained his work to people for whom he had esteem. He saved his explanation for imbeciles. The others were honoured by his silence. He surrounded himself with them, in a relationship of complicity, sharing knowledge that cannot be transferred.
When something has been explained, it is no longer possible to learn.
Artists usually have a discourse about their work. In Martinique, there is often discourse overkill; in other words, there is more discourse than work, probably due to a lack of confidence in the work in question. The need for explanation often leads us to employ the artist’s discourse, to attempt to surprise the work in this way. This is undoubtedly a mistake. What the artist says about it is never an explanation of the work. An important work is always beyond the artist’s discourse. It is far deeper and more intelligent than he is.
A work expresses everything there is to say.
The artist’s discourse is the husk of the work.
What the artist says must be taken as the scaffolding of the work, the skeleton of the project, the remnants of a battle fought in his imagination. Contemporary sensitivity likes to familiarise itself with this scaffolding, a little like nourishing trees with umbilical cords. A little like, in the first societies, when each person garnered within them the rumour of a Genesis, the therapeutic symbols of a founding myth. The artist’s discourse can only be part of the mystery of the work.
Next comes interpretation. The need for interpretation is similar to the need for explanation. Interpretation is an explanation that has freed itself. It summons explanation and imagination. It respects a few wrinkles and preserves a few shadows. It grasps what it sees or what it feels from the work and conveys it in a particular vision. An interpretation is always an expression of oneself. To interpret is often to name oneself. To interpret is therefore to take the risk to move away from the work. On the scale of an important work, thoughtful and necessary interpretation can lead to poverty.
All important works are a maelstrom of possible interpretations. A work that does not exist cannot be interpreted. It is monolithic and unequivocal. All minor work says: I can be interpreted a little. The important work says nothing, but it suggests this: I can be interpreted endlessly. He who interprets cuts himself off from infinity. Cuts himself off from an infinitely open work.
If the important work can be interpreted endlessly, what then remains of it?
Its imaginative passion.
What I mean is: its aura.
The « mystery » of the work has nothing to do with religion. Here, « mystery » means constant renewal. This is what makes the work brilliant and beautiful. Because beauty is always new. Always renewed, always renewing, always regenerating. Here, with Mr Breleur, is its most accurate definition.
The work should bring the artist’s convictions to the temperature of their own destruction.
Next is the learned discourse. All works of art are part of a history of art. This history allows the scholar to judge what it bears, what it reveals, what it shakes up, what it initiates. The important work always creates a historical level, a junction from which creativity will spread horizontally. As with the living, the history of art can be added to renewed crosses. The vertical line inventories the important levels, the decisive leaps, and the structuring divergences. The horizontal lines are the innumerable variations spawned by important works. The learned discourse reveals the lines, the levels and the intersections. But it cannot explain the event that an important work represents. I say « event » to encompass mystery, enigma, essence and imaginative passion in one and the same aura.
If we defer the explanation, the interpretation and the learned discourse, what do we have left?
What we have left is to envisage this: an important work inspires, in the highest meaning of the term and in its multiple variations.
Here, inspire means to swallow breath, to capture unexpected oxygen, to turn it into unexpected food. Being inspired means exceeding oneself, shaking the framework of certainty, leaving the familiar base that supports our instants.
Inspiration leads to a questioning of the lines of the real, another questioning of what we are, what we experience, what we perceive, even if this awareness remains imperceptible under rejection, embarrassment, disarray, exaltation or emotion. An important work disrupts us because it puts us on alert. It puts us on alert because it inspires.
Being inspired is to begin to cast off the stability of existing in the world to experience being in the world.
In existing in the world, the root is unique, the sap is stable like an essence, identity is exclusive of the Other.
In being in the world, the rhizome is exposed, the space above land is open; rootlessness and instability no longer threaten deepness. And I define myself in the amplitude of my relationship with the Other.
I define myself in the amplitude of my relationship with the Other.
An important work gives way to meditation. Meditation wanders between shadow and light, between consciousness and unconsciousness, between impulse and will, between imagination and construction. It can be spoken, or remain unspeakable. It travels between knowledge and liberty, between the depths of oneself and the unravelling going on outside.
Meditation lends itself to the aura of the work.
Meditation is familiar with uncertainty and supports its unsettling radiance. It protects us from systems of thought and thoughts of system. It murmurs to itself, it shakes and cannot pronounce itself. Glissant would say it is archipelagic.
Meditation respects and fully experiences the aura of the work.
An important work is liberating. It opens up paths and windows. Through it, it is possible to leave interior enclaves. One takes the risk of going.
An important work liberates without guiding; its aura stimulates horizons that haven’t yet been invented; it thus initiates « a guiding rootlessness », which guides deep within oneself, but which also guides in the spaces of the real and the world. This is why a discourse on the work is amoral, futile, beyond servitude, hostile to dogmas and militancy, just in agreement with the acids that disintegrate and lead to reconstitutions.
(The work does not have a discourse: let’s say instead that it has resonance)
But it has to be admitted, one can never escape explanation or interpretation. It is just necessary to know what they are, to hold them in thought under the nourishing interrogation of the work, to put them in danger under the resonance of its uncertainties.
(The work could be an aura of uncertainties)
Faulkner is one of the decisive authors of the twentieth century. There is not a single considerable writer who does not refer to him. He raised the awareness of novels by several notches.
Faulkner is one of Ernest Breleur’s brothers.
This fraternity has many foundations, but I am only going to mention two of them.
Faulkner often said: I ain’t that particular. Between Scotch and nothing, I’ll take Scotch. » It would be difficult to find a closer fraternity with Ernest Breleur.
Between Scotch and nothing, I’ll take Scotch. Let’s expand on this.
To elaborate, let’s go back to what Faulkner said about Hemingway. Faulkner said, basically: Hemingway does what he does well, but he doesn’t dare much. He was referring to the courage needed for any work. An important work cannot be done by halves.
Considerable artists are infinitely courageous. They dare. They dare not to be understood, they dare slump periods, they dare solitude. They dare to invalidate the conventional, the clichéd, the pretty, the known, the obvious, what has been done before or what has been thought before. They dare total uncertainty and do not fear incompletion. They invent horizons. They engender landscapes. They conceive worlds or even universes. And they dare utopia.
There is an Ernest Breleur universe.
Each period of this work is a world.
His Scotch is always very good.
It is wrong to think that utopia can be an escape from reality. Utopia confronts the depletion of the real. It makes its footing more complex, to then regenerate everything, integrate chaos, frequent disorder, touch on negation and build on what is lacking. All reality is the completion of utopia. Utopia is the invention of a place where a thousand realities are possible. It takes courage to confront what is missing.
Each of Mr Breleur’s artistic periods is an act of courage. His work goes beyond audacity because audacity depends on a norm. It leads to utopia, because utopia depends on nothing.
Here, Mr Breleur establishes the concrete and metaphorical juxtaposition of his life and his death. Of life and death. He does not build, he does not manufacture, he goes to the extreme, in an incredible frequentation of the dangerous temperatures of life and death, because this is where the most precious meaning is found. The most unreachable meaning, because very close to the most terrible of mysteries, and taking it into account. It takes courage to look for it.
The considerable artist blazes with courage.
By this, I mean that an artist with great authority, who isn’t worried about manipulating the energy of death, who can assemble what we can’t see or what worries us. I feel that here.
On the day of the inauguration, my brother, who is brilliant, murmured this sentence from the Bible, of which he is fond: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…He is right. The shadow is there. Death is there. This is how our drifting begins. First the shadow. Then the blackness, which is the intention.
Blackness is procreative. Blackness comes at the end, but in the beginning it inspires and aspires. Blackness is generic: it leads to a proliferation of possibilities and the unexpected.
Those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death frequent the end of a beginning, the beginning of an end: an end and a beginning all at once; the intensity of one increases the intensity of the other, in a constant re-beginning.
In his white period, Ernest Breleur hoisted the colour white to the procreative and generic level. To do this, he needed to use hatching and hints of other colours like husks of memories.
In today’s black, released from the painting, it is the form that remembers the energy of the colours.
Here, black is the energy of the form.
Death, too, is here. Not only death, but our own death too. It takes courage to approach it, to stare at it, to manipulate it. Death and its signs are kept away from our life and from the harmonies of our vitality. It takes courage to refuse this poverty.
Here, I feel that death is the very place where life trembles, awakens, takes risks and can be envisaged in renewed terms.
Here, death finds its fertile grace. What this trembling inspires in us, confuses old architecture, perplexes the frame, and makes way for absence and uncertainty. It is from this very trembling that renewal emerges. To answer my brother, I would say: I walk through the valley of renewal. And in this case, the renewed.
It is an effervescence.
There are so many deaths at our beginning. So many deaths in our strange genesis. So much death in the absence of great founding myths. So many deaths in the holds and the chains. So many deaths in the abysses of the Atlantic, so many offended shadows in the Gambia Abyssal Plain. Mr Breleur sees them, he knows that here, the act of work cannot ignore them.
For us the ocean is a sanctuary. An inaugural cemetery. It is a beautiful thing for a cemetery to have the generic force of the oceans, the procreative power of the water. As if these slave ships, in their thousands, had sown the abyssal plains of these fertile deaths which slowly start to resurface, and which meet the horsehair line of fishermen –– fishermen who alone know the mystery of the waters, the ovular power of their shadows. Mr Breleur knows it too.
There is (here and in our collective memory) life, death and diversity. So many races, so many peoples, so many ethnic groups, so many gods. The collapse is huge and the entanglement irremediable. What emerges are composite forms, forms rich in memories and souvenirs, forms rich in traces and manners, and what opens up is the exposed horizon. The form cannot be specified because the guiding rootlessness requires formlessness or even the absence of form.
If rootlessness itself guides you, this means that your path can be enriched by everything, that you are unfailingly free and unfailingly available.
There have been so many innovations! Each time, they have altered consciousness, extended our field of projection. The end of the ancient world. Copernic’s grand vision. The discovery of the Americas. The hold of the slave ships. Colonization. De-colonization. The massacres of the Great wars. The appearance of cities and large industries. The weakening of the nation state. The plague of the liberal economy, and so on.
Each time, we have experienced leaps of consciousness, of individuation and renewal. Now, we need to live, the here and now, the volatile, the unstable, the unforeseeable, the interactive, the word and the sound and the image, all tied together on a planet-sized frame, the entire world present in every mind, the field of projection extended to the cosmos. Hypermodernity opens up in what Mr Glissant calls the Relation.
The Relation is the world that opens inside us and that opens us to the world. Mr Breleur knows it.
Here, the artist captures life in death. Death lets him capture life. This inter-retro-action starts all over again each time we look at one of these works.
This restarting of life liberates us. It initiates us in the beginnings, which end in re-beginnings.
The important work reveals unexpected meaning, unforeseen amplitude. The artist-creator himself can look at it with astonishment.
Happy are artists surprised by their own works!
The important work may be a failure. There are large and small failures. The failures of considerable artists are always magnificent. Their failures surprise and nourish them. Faulkner judged the quality of his books in the light of their failure. Dissatisfaction is the greatest of energies.
Failure is the arena of talent.
Form has memories. Form is a memory. But form is all-powerful when it does not remember. I can feel it here. Each form is in a state of becoming, and it is this becoming which makes the work, which makes the installation vibrate. Formlessness implies something; absence of form inspires. Each time, we are forced to lift our head, to follow an imperceptible ascension, as if breaking away from a base.
The memory of each form comes from the horsehair line. But this line is a light that can be reduced, broken or suspended by shadow. It is a presence which can stir with the wind, which can experience a movement, respond to a caress, continue with the slightest touch. The horsehair line is an uncertainty that gives; a generosity.
The neon lights remember the workshop. They remember the forge. They watch over the incompleteness, the formlessness, which they emphasise and prolong. They are arranged obliquely to vary the equilibrium, to upset the harmony and designate disorder.
Incompleteness is the most easily available with which to grasp the riches of uncertainty and its procession of the unexpected.
(Incompleteness is a postponement: intention stops just before certainty)
The neon lights also state that there is a will. An authority, even: in other words a consciousness and a will. The work is under control.
The ancient artist went with the flow of his impulse and his unconsciousness. He could be a sacred child, a holy victim, a product of instinct, a creature of inspiration, of muses or of his unconscious.
The artist of Relation is an explosion of consciousness, of knowledge and will. His talent is an explosion of consciousness, of reason and of will, which faces the uncertain, the unforeseeable, the constantly volatile.
The ancient artist used the light of the candle, an oil lamp, a torch, the sanctified light of collective truth.
The artist of Relation is alone. His light is born of rarer gases. His vision is shadowless. His consciousness too.
Each little form is alone. It is sustained by a single horsehair line. Each little form is alone and the whole is a unit. Each form is solitary and united, just as hypermodernity imposes on us.
Each form captures a void and subjects it to curves which absorb each other. The angle is a certainty. The curve is a question which feeds on its own problem, without resolving it.
(The curve is a question that keeps its oxygen.)
Faulkner said: I don’t know anything about inspiration, I’ve heard about it, but I never saw it. He who inspired so many was a pure explosion of consciousness, knowledge and will. Like a brother of Mr Breleur.
Happy is he who looks at a work and is inspired. Woe to the artist who allows himself to be guided by the robots of inspiration.
Mr Breleur does not name. And when he does name, the formulation leads almost to a story which could be told in a thousand and one ways. It must not be told. It must be experienced the hard way.
Colonialists named everything they came across. The person who names fixes the world and attempts to subjugate it. In Creole culture, there were a thousand names besides the one given by the Master, innumerable nicknames besides the one on the birth certificate. A nickname told countless stories passed down through History. It did not name: it provided escape. Mr Breleur knew the nicknames.
Here, to Reconstitute is perhaps to not seek the ancient form. Perhaps it is to exalt everything the ancient form could not express. It is perhaps to problematize the origin.
Why deprive oneself of what the frame gives? The frame creates the creative space and gives it energy, it sharpens the look and strengthens that which is assumed. Mr Breleur remembers the frame, but fragments it into mosaics and shapes it into cases.
After the proliferating emergence of forms comes individuation: each form is a single entity, unlike any other and which remains in a state of becoming. The frame-case specifies this entity.
In the hypermodernity of the Relation, these forms relate diversity and individuation, but there is also a risk of uniformity, of which the frames remind us; there is also the individuated isolation indicated by each frame. But the mosaic as a whole suggests that another force is in movement. As for the case, it provides space for something to emerge, it reserves a secret dimension.
The frame-case suggests this to me: plunged into the Relation, threatened by standardisation, each form, each individuation, must build its scale of values, its grid of principles, its multiple references. Each individual must discover how to become a person.
(The frame-case provides space for the poetics of another dimension.)
Some forms fear the frame-case and turn into chrysalises. The chrysalis brings to mind the egg, the seed, the foetal pocket. It fixes the unforeseeable and the uncertain.
The chrysalis is ready for anything and prepares us for everything.
The chrysalis hesitates between a thousand possible different people.
The chrysalis awaits a world. It is a metamorphic world of Relation.
The chrysalis is perhaps an involution too. But many involutions lead to great evolutions. The chrysalis keeps the secret of the beginnings and the re-beginnings.
(Involution: fundamentalism, cultural isolationism, ethnic purification, narrow nationalism, etc.)
Old communities provided the link that united them. In the hypermodernity of the Relation, the individual establishes their person, and each person establishes their link with the other, with others, with the world, etc. The link comes from each one and spreads out like a rhizome to weave a unity. Mr Breleur tells us about this new imaginary world which is difficult for us.
Scarification was etched into the norm of the community, in the very flesh of the individual. A scarified person carried within them the reminder of authority. Like an order. A fixed element of their being which neutralised their individuation.
The staple resembles him, but the staple emphasises a link, hybridisation, contact, assembly, connection, and attachment. The staple connects and joins, recalls the incompleteness of the work and the guiding force of a consciousness that holds it.
The staple sees the front and the back. It captures the light and makes it travel. It is visible because it does not want to dilute this diversity. It creates unity in the diversity preserved, the whole in the diffraction assumed.
The staple is the scarification of the Relation. It exalts the composite person materializing into each individuated form.
Now and again, a faceless look expresses a fragment of soul. A breast recalls that the body is formless, that existing is deferred in favour of being, that keeping it in a state of becoming makes it possible to « change by exchanging, without losing or denaturing oneself » as Mr Glissant suggests.
The lost tribe must be remembered, in honour of those who came to us from the Gambia Abyssal Plain. It elevates us because it broke the ancestral roots to go out to find a new world. It extends horizontally, in differing dimensions, because its space is the Tout-Monde.
The tribe is lost because it is impossible. Each form will set off on its own into the world. Some will take the risk of an anthropomorphic sketch as if to deny it; others will draw their memories of faces, semblances of portraits; but all will keep intact the poetics of the uncertain and the unforeseeable, this prose of solitudes that need to find their connection.
(The tribe is impossible: the connection is in the substance of the world, not in the exclusiveness of races.)
Families, filiations, large fraternities are being woven in the substance of the world. The tribe is a tribe of the world. It pays tribute to warm up cold solitudes, but without abandoning the strength of solitudes.
Each form is a presence, each presence is an autonomous consciousness, and each horsehair line is a will.
The Place is the reconstituted world. The World is all the Places reconstituted. The work is the result of the Place by the world. And of the world by the Place. This is why it is decisive. Mr Breleur knows it.
(The Tout-Monde is the sheen from all the Places in the world)
Being in the world is no longer the result of a body, but of imaginary structures. Being in the world is metamorphic.
The lost tribe says that every truth is shaky, that only the quivering of uncertainty signals the beginning of anything relevant.
Here, uncertainty is in the proliferation of diversities, in the elevating movement, in the opening of nicknames, in shadow and in death, in life that is beginning and seeking itself. Where does this happen? It happens everywhere. Who are they? Anybody in the world? Where are they going? They are rising up, far and wide.
Here, everything is uncertain. Only the intention is firm, but without stiffness.
The lost tribe is prophetic. It has so much history that it remembers the future. This people of metamorphoses connects what is in front and what is to come, what needs to be known and what will need to be lived.
The lost tribe knows that there is future in the origin, and origin in the future.
The tribe says what cannot be said, and tells an adventure that must not be told.
The tribe is not a monument, it is a movement.
The tribe is much more than a movement, it is excess. The excess of the world demands an excess of excess.
Glissant said it. Mr Breleur knows it.
The excess of excess can be looked at without being defined, seen without being depleted; crossed without ever being met, envisaged from inside and from outside, from above and from below. It can move or not move, it can stand up in order to flee more easily… It can only be disbelieved in the disbelief it arouses. It only gives what it does not grant.
An installation of hypermodernity reaches its plainsong only in the excess of excess.
What does the form say when it remains in a state of becoming?
It says that everything is possible. That every identity is open, that space is given by the opening of the Place, that death is the friend of life, and that meaning is born of their irremediable complementarity.
(We now need to attempt the Everything, without closing totality)
To finish, I would like to confess another feeling.
We stem from death and the horror of slavery. We had to be born again alone, in formless, composite forms, always in a state of becoming. What we are is still indecipherable and therefore underestimated. This is why we have such low esteem of ourselves, so little kindness for ourselves. This is why we are so incapable of internal admiration.
Here, the feeling of admiration is at the root of the creative process. It feeds the creative act. I would even say it cleanses it. In a dominated country, admiration is a sign of interior reconstitution.
Mr Breleur has known how to plunge into the most terrible part of us and find beauty.
He can admire, he is therefore admirable.
Patrick Chamoiseau, born in Fort-de-France on 3 December 1953, is a French author from Martinique. He has written novels, tales and essays. He is a theorist of Créolité, a movement he founded in Martinique in the 1980s. He co-authored and published, with Jean Bernabé and Raphaël Confiant, L’éloge de la créolité in 1989.
He was awarded the Goncourt Prize in 1992 for his novel Texaco, a masterpiece that presents life in Martinique over three generations. He has also written for theatre and cinema. He is the author of the scenarios for the films Biguine (2004), Aliker (2007), Nord-Plage (2004) and Le Passage du Milieu (2009)
His most recent works include Un dimanche au cachot (2007), L’empreinte à Crusoé (2009), Le papillon et la lumière (2011) and Hypérion victimaire (2013).
He is currently director of the Mission Martinique 2020, a vast urban redevelopment and culture valorisation programme in two attractiveness zones in Martinique, Le Grand Saint–Pierre and L’Embellie des Trois-Ilets.