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Carole Boulbès - Reaching for the Moon, an introduction - Garden Party, 2011

In the introduction to his study Art and Illusion, the historian E.H. Gombrich suggests that readers try out an odd experiment – they are asked to get up on the spot and go
and look at themselves in a mirror! In doing so, they can observe that their faces appear ”as if they were on the other side” and that “dimensions therefore seem larger than those of the reflection”. Optical illusions. Traps for our visual perception. And also, by extension, a distancing of our certainties. Seeing in new ways with every passing second : Sébastien Gouju is an observer. He takes note of the little
arrangements we have made with this “reality” that we can hardly see. He brings us face to face with appearances that too often seem to have the weight of evidence behind them.
He takes us off in discovery of another way of seeing things. And in this quest for a kind of expanded consciousness
where every detail requires our full attention, drawing, sculpture and casting are the artist’s preferred means
of exploration.

A story of correlation and collection

It is by no means easy to explain what it is that holds
our attention, why we are drawn to one image rather than
to another. Gouju takes visuals from newspapers, magazines, posters and handbills, adds them to his collection of images, and then assembles them. In itself, there is nothing original
in this approach. From Dada to Pop art, from Max Ernst
to Kurt Schwitters, and from Hamilton to Erró, collage
has been used to upset visual habits, to introduce
simultaneity in perception, and to insert words or slogans
into images. But Gouju does not show this preliminary stage
in his work. He uses assemblages as a starting point
for creation of works on paper that combine ink, gouache
and pencil. It would seem that he is very familiar
with the photomontages of Alexandre Rodtchenko, Pietr Zwart and, above all, László Moholy-Nagy, as his works
are characterised by their constructivist structure.
Empty space plays a fundamental role: little figurative vignettes appear like pin-ups on a vast white background. Isolated characters carry out an action – fire a rifle, do sport
or make music … And near them, inventions from the history of science and technology (aircraft, tanks, Le Corbusier’s prefabricated domino system, satellites, and so on) become almost invasive. There are numerous references
to the cinema, with something of a preference for fantasy, science fiction and comicbook heroes. One after the other,
we recognise Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon,
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and George Lucas’ Star Wars
The play of references even encompasses art history.
The artist gives his reinterpretation of Francis Picabia’s “machinist” works. The portraitof the poet De Zayas, whom Picabia depicted in the form of a mechanical lighting system,
is now complemented by gas pipes associated with a meter.
Double Monde (“Dual World”), which originally basically consisted of regulating lines in and around which half a dozen seemingly unrelated captions are scattered, is embellished with a variety of figurative elements, including palm trees,
a pretzel, a satellite, and two or three lunatics in bizarre erotic poses. Beyond the formal chromatic interplay, one cannot
help but be intrigued by the visual correlations.

Observation and disordering of the senses

This is not simply a rebus for cultivated minds. Gouju works by analogies, leaving free rein to associations of ideas, deconstructing logic and snubbing his nose at Cartesian reasoning. Making use of small objects that seem to have
no significance in themselves, he brings about a kind
of disordering of all five senses. A world almost as disturbing as Lewis Carroll’s takes shape before our eyes. Childhood
is not far off, but it is light years away from what we are today. Are we so sure that the reflection that we scrutinise
in the mirror is in the image of the child we once were?
The reflection in the mirror is as deceptive as our memory.
It is just as imperfect as our perception of the five pairs
of little girls’legs that Gouju lines up on the floor alongside
one another. One reads, “Plaster and polyester,
46 x 8 x 150 cm” and one tells oneself that this is really frightful – they look like real legs cut off at the knee.
Each one seems identical; the repetition seems mechanical: five pairs of white tights and ten black sandals. Alice is not really in Wonderland. At first glance, everything is calm, clean
and restrained: these are not Paul Thek’s anatomical wax models with every vein and blood vessel depicted in loving detail, nor are they the Chapman brothers’ “gore fest” anatomical montages. More subtly, Gouju uses different models to create different moulds. In fact, not one of the legs
is identical. In 2009, the artist used the lost wax casting technique to create a work with the emblematic title
Au Nom du Père
(“In the Name of the Father”). Once again,
it is designed to be read in two stages. First of all, one tells oneself that the content has a recognisable context,
is familiar – two white five-branch candlesticks each holding five candles. Looking more closely, however, one sees that
there are purses hanging from the branches of the paraffin-wax covered candlesticks... A strange way to carry the family jewels! The object, whose usual function is to hold candles,
is put to a far more metaphorical use. At the same time,
Gouju has simply observed the shapes brought into being
naturally when the wax melted to create its own masses
of matter… Polysemic and humoristic, the title is typical
of the analogies, condensations and displacements that lie
at the origin of so many of his works. Once again, logical paradoxes lurk beneath bland appearances.
In this falsely ingenuous world, unseemliness is always
on the lookout, ready to make a sudden appearance between the lines or in empty spaces: those are real flies suspended
in a decorative mobile that might be hung in a child’s
bedroom; those toy balloons are made of blown glass,
bursting them is not recommended; an aeroplane fashioned from bent metal leaf is stuck into the wall. Sharp-edged. Disturbing. Even those cuddly mice so beloved by children
are not soft toys at all but heavy pebbles equipped
with charming pink plastic tails. The rat-tailed pebbles
in Saint Bernard are made to “stand in the corner”,
one on top of the other. These are restrained works. Nonetheless, if you look closely, they bring to mind
the objects of terror created by Victor Brauner or Meret
Oppenheim, who abolished the frontier between man
and animal, the civilised and the savage. At the time, Salvador Dali’s “objects of symbolic function” and critical paranoia concept left a great impression on the young Jacques Lacan, who later went on to formulate the idea that the unconscious
is structured like a language.

From the infinitesimal to the infinitely large

Gouju frequently obliges the spectator to change position and, consequently, point of view: it is impossible to see the little Soldats ( “Soldiers” – 2006) hiding away beneath lead ivy leaves without bending double and looking at them from
an angle. The question of where the spectator positions himself has often been debated by art historians.
For E.H Gombrich, who posed the problem of perspective,
and for Michæl Fried, who questioned the modern works of Courbet and Manet, the objective was to analyse ambiguities
in the perception of Western painting. In the 20th and 21st centuries, of course, installation practices have somewhat shifted the terms of the problem. Strangely enough, sculptors often adopt a point of view from ground level, without pedestal or embellishment, obliging us to see things from down below as if we were children, or insects rather. From there, it is only
a single step (that Gouju does not take!) to imagining
the spectator transformed into Gregor Samsa crawling up
the walls as he does in Kafka’s novel. Moreover, the artist insists that he has no political or religious message to convey. Nonetheless,a sarcastic work such as In God We Trust (2009) gives us an idea of his intentions: unburdened of his crucifix,
a brass Christ stands at the end of a promontory. The figure
is leaning forward and seems to be on the point of diving into the void. The spectator regards the little sculpture that looks down on him from above, threatening to throw itself down
on top of him... The message is clear and simple. It would
have delighted the Dadaists, who were ardent admirers
of Nietzsche’s writings… With a title that crystallises several concepts, Décrocher la Lune (“Reaching for the Moon” - 2010)
is a rather more complex work. Made up of an ensemble
of nails hammered into a painted wall, the installation forces the spectator to move around if he is to judge its effect.
What is more, it requires a mnemonic effort (to make a mental comparison with satellite photographs of the moon)
alongside an effort of abstraction in order to see beyond
the materiality of things (the nails in the wall). Ambiguities. Dual senses imparted by the titles of his works. Décrocher
la Lune
, doing the impossible – what artists would wish to do less? But Sébastien Gouju does his all to avoid falling into
the trap of storytelling. He has no wish to create a poetic
or symbolic narrative in spite of himself – still less
a symptomatic story in illustration of the notion that
the unconscious is structured like a language. In his eyes,
the fragility of materials, the possible alternative uses to which
they may be put, their restraint and their ephemeral nature
are far more important facts. With Gouju, everything is played out on the border between the natural and the artificial:
Le Château de Sable
(“The Sandcastle”) is indeed a pile
of sand, but it is made up of little quadrilaterals that imitate children’s building games. Les Papillons (“The Butterflies”)
are not animals, but rather little pieces of colouring crayons that have been shaped and pinned into collectors’ boxes.
La Grande Ourse
(“The Great Bear”) is a false constellation made up of electric portlights set up on high on the arm
of a construction site crane. All is metamorphosis and illusion.

At the end of this introduction, a hypothesis begins to take shape: what if Le Château de Sable were a kind of paradigm that held true for the artist’s entire oeuvre? The piled-up sand, a material normally utilised in foundry work, is put to another use. It is ephemeral. It disintegrates at the slightest touch.
Once again, one of our childhood practices (making sand pies) has been gently worked over by the artist. And once again, condensations, displacements, and plays on words and points of view: the pile of sand is set on the floor and has nothing whatsoever in common with a castle. Reality crumbles. Perception becomes alogical. These games of
(de)construction are not really for children at all.
Is it just by chance that they make us think of those unobtrusive yet strange “deviant” objects encountered
in fantasy films?