Le Manoir de la ville de Martigny
Organized by Anne Jean-Richard Largey, Martin Jaeggi and Thomas Julier
February 26 – May 22, 2016
A few words on Noir dedans
Noir dedans circles around Joris-Karl Huysmans' A rébours (1884), a cult classic of early modernism. Resisting the narrative conventions of the time, the novel focuses on the attempts of its protagonist, the hypersensitive and neurasthenic aesthete Des Esseintes, to escape the vulgarity of modern life. Shunning nature, he creates an entirely controlled artificial environment in a manor house outside of Paris, where simulation and representation replace consensus reality.
Our intention, however, was not to illustrate the text or to provide a historical analysis. Rather, we were interested in how it prefigured certain aspects of the present – in reading it as a science-fiction novel. Our premise was that Des Esseintes is very much a contemporary of ours. Today, we are increasingly living in artificial paradises of our own making, a world where screens and replicas abound. Sitting in front of our screens, holed up in our rooms, we're closer to Des Esseintes' lifestyle than ever. Representation and reality are ever more intricately intertwined, a fact reflected by many works in the exhibition, which reference the simulacral worlds of computer games, advertising, and webcam stripping. The sensitivity to surfaces and materials, the delight in replicas, imitations, and copies, evident in A rébours is another feature that resonates with the preoccupations of the artists in the exhibition.
The description of a house as a self-enclosed, controlled environment, an idiosyncratic installation, was another salient aspect of A rébours that we wanted to elaborate upon. The architecture of Le Manoir, an art space whose atmosphere is very much determined by its architecture, invited an exhibition with an immersive effect. Noir dedans was not intended to be mere an selection of single works, meaningfully contextualised, but an self-contained environment, generating a consistent aesthetic experience, like Des Esseintes' mansion.
The site specificity of Noir dedans is further underlined by the inclusion of three artworks and an artefact from the Valais. A number of symbolist artists lived in the region, hence we included one of them, Charles Clos Olsommer, in the exhibition, thus referencing and integrating the historical period heralded by A rébours. The other local artefact is an house altar, discarded in the trash, with the cross removed, and subsequently salvaged by Werner Bellwald, who curates a museum in the Lötschen Valley dedicated to objects thrown away by the locals. It appeared to us as a fitting emblem of the crisis of faith, on which A rébours pivots.
The title Noir dedans alludes to the idea of the exhibition as a heterotopic space, secluded from the outside world and the glaring light of reason. It is also an homage to two legendary aesthetes – Jean Cocteau and Yves Saint-Laurent. For his A/W 1984 collection, Shakespeare et les poétes, Saint-Laurent embroidered a quote from a poem by Cocteau on a gown, " Soleil moi, je suis noir dedans et rose dehors, fais la metamorphose ", simultaneously tribute to and declaring himself heir to a literary sensibility. The gown materializes literature in fashion, just as Noir dedans materializes it in art. By paying homage to Saint-Laurent paying homage to Cocteau, we continue a chain of references, thus placing the exhibition in a larger historical continuum, stretching from the fin-de-siècle to today.
The publication adds yet another layer to Noir dedans, as it allows us to juxtapose key passages from A rébours with images of the exhibition and of some of the art works. In a sense, Noir dedans comes full circle with this publication: A book was its origin, and now it becomes itself a book. It is not intended as a documentary record of the exhibition, but rather as a fiction of the exhibition within the virtual space of a book, a myth in other words. Very much in the spirit of Des Esseintes, it affirms the alternate reality of representation, where ideas may find their most precise expression. Or as Stéphane Mallarmé said: Le monde existe pour aboutir à un livre. What applies to the world might as well apply to exhibitions.