Ariane Loze, the renewal of action art

Galerie Michel Rein, Paris, until 6 April 2019

It is not so frequent to discover a work, and even less a work based on video, which combines form, substance and genuine novelty, but also which effectively straddles several art forms, such as in the case of the young Belgian artist Ariane Loze, currently showing four videos at the Galerie Michel Rein, in Paris. 

The videos, shown on flat screens in two adjacent rooms, are titled respectively “Impotence”, “Inner Landscape”, “Studies and Definition”, and “Utopia”, which all echo each other. They share a general mood of contemporary malaise, whether individual or collective, which is indeed so easy to perceive in today’s European society. They also share the same form, which is a dialogue between two or three parts of the inner self, two or three characters or archetypes from society, all of them embodied by the author herself : Ariane Loze is at once writer, director, scenographer, film editor, and actress, she is alone in front of the camera, acting in turn all parts and embodying in turn all characters, all moods, all emotions. She is our world by herself.

Formally, this work is both very ancient and very new, drawing on the traditions of theatre and cinema, but transforming them into a powerful trigger for the introspection of the viewer under the pretence of the musings of the actress(es).

The unity of location and time, the use of a succession of fixed shots framing each successive speaking (or walking) character, mostly close-ups in the case of “Impotence”, and the absence of any movement or activity or distracting ornament or event in the background (spaces without windows in two instances, an antiquated library, an inconspicuous clearing on a hill…), provide a means of focusing the attention on the expression of the characters and their words; they also create a stifling effect which connotates the general mood and echo the darkest of the words uttered. Such means are drawn from classic theatre, and one could specify ancient Greek, or Elizabethan theatre. The form of the dialogue around a difficult question which the participants try to narrow down and ultimately resolve is of course typical of all Platonic dialogues, where the same author, Plato himself in the guise of Socrates, acts through the fiction of two opposing views; these are perhaps the first attempts at maieutic through video.

Let us to turn our attention to the purpose of the artist, whether meant or inferred. There is of course no lack of artists who have ambitioned to change or improve the world, and in a sense shaping the world is indeed what so many artists have been doing since the depths of the Aurignacian. Many an architect, a painter, a musician, a writer has aimed at elevating this poor thing that is Humanity. Their tools were mostly inadequate to the purpose, as they only reach but a few; who can tell exactly to what extent the elevation of a fraction of humanity has contributed to the bettering of the whole ?  To elevate the many through the enlightenment of the few was indeed the ambition set out in Plato’s Republic, although he misunderstood and ultimately despised visual arts. And the very same theory was guiding Alexander Bogdanov when he organised the Proletkult on the wake of the October Revolution, and in general all revolutionary avant-garde : “Avidly grasp the pieces of healthy art, young and unpolished that we are delivering to you” advised Mayakovski in 1918…

Architecture had a chance, which it probably missed because shaping the world does not necessarily stem from shaping the environment, and the latter does not come cheap either: Le Corbusier learnt something about this. Cinema has had more success: no other art form had yet managed to reach so many people in their hearts and minds. And although no single film may claim to have achieved any meaningful political impact, if one defines it merely as an impact on elections, governments, or policies, there certainly exist bodies of cinema works, or products, which have had a say on how the polis feels and evolves. They could be outright propaganda films such as those directed by Eisenstein or Pudovkin, and more modestly the Rambo saga. They are, today, major series for the television, such as The Magnificent Century and so many other Turkish series, which certainly count among the very best propaganda machineries deployed today on TV screens for both internal and international use. More generally, who and what is consistently shown on screens as being desirable, or despicable, or powerful is likely to have a conditioning effect, which in turns makes some “values” more acceptable than others, and therefore some policies more acceptable than others. Individual competition as the dominant ideology of the hitherto “western” world is clearly valued and reinforced by the now gigantic videogames industry, which does represent by some of its aspects an art form. Certainly beyond what can be seen of mostly indigent street art.

With the model of Ariane Loze’s videos, we are witnessing an extension of the potential of video art towards new territories of what I would call “action art”, for the lack of a better word. Firstly because the channels of mass distribution already exists with Youtube and the likes. Secondly because the format of short videos is consistent with the attention span of a very large number of persons, and apt to deploy an argumentation while avoiding pedantry, haughtiness and boredom. Thirdly, because intellectual seduction may have enough time to be deployed, given the right speaker and the right eloquence; and here the theatrical experience of Ariane Loze is a manifest advantage as it allows to bring emotions into play. In a sense, one could argue that the four videos presented at the gallery belong to the art of eloquence at least as much as to the visual arts.  

As Cicero warns us, « Erit igitur eloquens is qui in foro ut probet ut delectet ut ectat… Probare necessitatis est, delectare suauitatis, ectere uictoriae” (Cicero, De Oratore, 69). He will be eloquent he who expresses himself so as to prove, to charm, and to move. To prove is a matter of necessity, to charm is for pleasure, to move is to win. So as to distance themselves from propaganda, the visual arts have tended to forsake the field of demonstration, the first of the attributes which Cicero demands from eloquence, and to concentrate on questioning man, society, God, identity, pleasure, moral, and about everything else… Here we are one step closer from eloquence, where the question begins to take the shape of a refusal, a retraction, a rebellion, once the artist has examined the merits of the case.

And indeed, not so often does the art of questioning reach the quality of what Ariane Loze presents us with in these four videos : what is being questioned is clear, there are no tiresome digressions and musings, no vain chatting; mental action is all here in front of us, the spring is fully wound up from the start, and fully unwinds in ten minutes or so. The videos are like the gesture of the calligrapher, or the reading of a sonnet: the mood, the message, the mental images which are connotated all appear progressively, and the whole is an autonomous piece or sign which lives by itself and continues to work on the mind. What is being questioned ?

In Impotence, shot in April 2017, we witness – as the name suggests – the split of the inner self which both emotionally despairs of his inability to act, and strives to convinces himself that life has much to offer, professional satisfactions are round the corner, and just sitting in a state of paralysis makes no sense. This split is very effectively exposed thanks to the admirable talent of Ariane Loze for incarnating each one of these selves. The topic has no relationship whatsoever with schizophrenia, which is defined by a loss of contact with reality and not a personality split. Quite the opposite: the individual is overwhelmed by reality.

As we know, in Civilization and its discontents Freud suggests that humans are driven by a “pleasure principle” whilst “civilization” forces the individual to act according to all kinds of rules, to act a part in society, thus stifling the pleasure principle and causing unhappiness. Civilization is thus the unavoidable cause of human unhappiness. Freud concludes by wondering whether societies can be as “neurotic” as people are, torn between the basic impulses of love and destruction. The point was made in 1929. And although there is much to say against the theories of Freud, one could argue that humans have done their best to try and offload as many social constraints as they could during the last half century or so. The technique, so to speak, has consisted in reshaping what were representations into prejudices, myths into fiction, moral into moralism, and so on, without really replacing any of those.  But the pleasure principle alone will not suffice; the depressed character of Impotence seems to be faced with her inner void. And the incentives or consolations offered to her by the “dynamic” part of the self, the persona – to use a Jungian term – of the professional woman which is in reality only the image of success proposed by society today, sounds just as hollow, because we are made to look at it from a distance, critically. Each “side” of the self misses entirely the target, and each contributes to reinforcing the intransigence of the one and the dereliction of the other.

It is pretty clear that the answer to an ontological question, wrongly phrased as “what am I here to do ?” when it really means “what I am here for ?”, receives in our society an answer which is completely beside the point, because it refers to actions, to the plane of phenomenology. The purpose of being cannot be doing, or being useful.  Our society induces us to transform ontology into praxis by erecting Reason as the only measure of reality. As Reason cannot provide by itself any satisfactory answer to an ontological question, it transforms it into a process, where it rules sovereign. None of the characters of Impotence realize that, and they are therefore stuck in a blind alley: the video ends by: ”I do not know what to do”… This blind alley is where most of us currently live, and that is excellently captured by the artist who very wisely leaves the answer up to the watchers. Ariane Loze gives us a remarkable performance of the character of the derelict; perhaps her best role in the four videos: pure Stanislavski-inspired work.    

A few weeks after Impotence, in February 2018, Ariane Loze shot a second video, Inner Landscape, which seeks to fill up the void opened with Impotence. Perhaps the abyss was too vertiginous… This video somehow reverses the previous one: it is shot in an open landscape, with a chilly breeze and a clear sky; the characters wear heavy coats and winter caps or fur hats. Instead of wondering and brooding, they seem to be seeking a path. They walk. The key sentence is the ever-repeated program of all revolutions, though extended from humans to Life on Earth : “Nothing of what lives will ever again be subjected to the will, the desire, the hunger of another living being”. The enemy is identified, he is familiar: it is domination, under all its forms and under all its hypostases. Power is evil, a well known topos of what used to be called, in the 1980s, the « theology of liberation ».

Nothing is so simple, alas. Naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret. Expel nature with a fork, she will always come back. (Horace, Epistles, I, 10, v. 24). Schopenhauer warned us that life cannot easily be separated from endless needs: « this body is simply the will to live, incarnated. This is why man, the most perfect of the objective forms of this will, is also and as a consequence the being who is most besieged by needs; from top to bottom he is only will, effort; needs by the thousands, that is the substance that makes him. And as such he is thrown on this earth, abandoned to himself, uncertain about everything, except for his needs and slavery…” (The World as Will and Representation, 1819).

And Horace again suggests an answer to the question put by Inner Landscape in the form of stoic ethics as a possible escape way out of the blind alley, a way for man to escape his sufferings using the main tool he has, which is reason : Qua ratione queas traducere leniter œvum, Ne te semper inops agitet vexetque cupido, Ne pavor et rerum mediocriter utilium spes. How you can gently spend your life without being tormented by always unsatisfied desires, by fear, by the hope of things of little use. (Horace, Epistles I, 18, v. 97 sqq). Should the answer be political, as obviously expected, or ethical ?

A third video, shot a bit later in the library of the Fondation Biermans-Lapôtre, the Belgian quarters within the Cité Internationale universitaire in Paris, bears the enigmatic title Studies and Definitions. It explores the need for greater intimacy between the political and the ethical. The concept of this work was born, so does the author say, out of realization that our forebearers made considerable efforts to define, elaborate, and implement the principles which would enable future generations to live harmoniously and in peace in society, putting such ideals ahead of any private interest, including their own. And this generosity, this altruism which has led to the establishment of such places as the Cité Internationale universitaire, seems to be lost in our times of individualism and demands of immediate satisfactions.

We hear a young woman – the artist herself of course – read aloud in this slightly outdated library the Preamble and initial articles of the founding Treaty of the European Union, which set the purpose and the spirit of this unique political construct; other young women – themselves interpreted by the artist – interrupt her from time to time, interject, take notes, as if they were all together a new generation of women trying to re-invent such a treaty for the present days. But the Treaty is already there, and the reader does not interrupt her reading. You are made to wonder if the point is to re-write, re-invent, remember, or at last enact what is already written.

One is struck by the fact that the words spoken, and which in reality are part of our present-day constitution, sound so distant, ethereal, like poetry read aloud. A gentle flow, as gentle as the atmosphere of the library and the light with which it is suffused. Although the video makes it sound as if these principles were forgotten – or at least neglected in the ocean of selfishness where we are supposed to live – one could point at the fact that they are nonetheless implemented to some extent every day through our institutions and our laws, to the extent permitted by the numerous and delicate equilibria of society at any given time. What has changed in modern European history is probably not so much the vision, to take this silly but effective word from management textbooks, but the spirit with which we consider it. The whole effort of modern western societies has consisted during the past fifty years in deconstructing myths, ideologies, religions, prejudices and the like. The emancipation of the human being was to emerge from the rubble, like Venus from the shell. And we would expect to witness the same collective will and desire for progress at work as we witnessed under the colossal thrust of the great religions and ideologies of the past ? In what name ? The Treaties were written so that citizens may live together assuming that they wanted to do so, but no amount of legislation will ever create bonds among humans, only places and ways to express these bonds. This video explores in a sense the hollowness of this grand palace where each person has a room, but few seem to ever meet in the magnificently decorated living room…

Utopia is the fourth of these videos, and from a certain perspective the most accomplished. It was shot at the Belgian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, the setting being the installation of the Traumnovelle architects for their Eurotopie project. This installation consists in a circular set of bleachers, painted in a ultramarine shade of blue, within white wall and without any window. An opening in the back – as seen in the video, which does not allow a full circular view of the room – provides some depth. It would seem that the general concept underpinning Eurotopie is that of having European citizens freely gather, debate, voice their views, hopes and concerns about Europe and other matters, in short feel free. Some European utopia under construction, we are to believe.

Of considerably greater interest is the performance of Ariane Loze. The several-in-one actress(es) is of course the artist herself, dressed in an intensively yellow cloak which works in perfect harmony with the colour of the bleachers. So here is an ekklesia. A contemporary ekklesia of course, since women, as we know, were not admitted to the debates of the assembly in Ancient Greece, while we are faced here with a fully feminine ekklesia where the citizens “utopically” agree upon a way to ensure harmony within society, and conclude – if one may thus summarize a more complex debate – that what is required is to rebuild society from the very roots of human fundamental needs which are a healthy environment and healthy food in the right measure. The rest, if any, will come after. The visual power of the work is provided by the simplicity of the space, the faultless choreography of all body movements and positionings, and the semiotic coherence between the space and the topics addressed therein.

Without discussing here the complex workings and highly “tempered” nature of Greek democracy in its heydays, nor the relevance of the suggestion which in a sense could easily be unanimously approved with the only exception of parts of Mr Trump’s electorate, it is worth stressing the fact that representation, whether of forms, ideas or people, just as modelisation in the realm of science, is no substitution for or overlaying of reality. Borges reminds us of precisely that in his exquisite story On Exactitude in Science. In politics, what sits between the model and the reality which it intends to shape is either force or persuasion, which is why utopias have always brought on violence, as they have consistently failed to persuade everyone all the time. The contradiction at the heart of utopias – or of Eurotopie for that matter – consists in the fact that the conditions required to make it happen in the real world inevitably negate the freedom of thought and behaviour of the individuals which are to take part in it. As force is presumably off the agenda, persuasion is the only remaining instrument. Eloquence is how you persuade, or try to. As we know since Corax of Syracuse and the first attempts at professional eloquence, it is an art; interestingly, we are now considering a new form of eloquence, and a new form by the means of which art addresses its goal of inducing and persuading. Baroque is perhaps the last systematic attempt at construing art as rethoric. We have a thread, an indication of where it could move next.  

Democracy was the coming together of ἰσηγορία, the equal right of every citizen to debate, ἰσονομία, equality under the law, and ἰσοπολιτεία, equality of vote and equal opportunity to assume political office. It could never have meant ἰσοδόξα, equality of opinions… The discrepancy between the model and society itself is an endless source of frustration, and the tensions which are at the root of this discrepancy is the stuff of tragedy. Having political debate happening in a place which is also a theatre, as was indeed the case in Athens where the ekklesia met at the Theatre of Dionysos after 300BC, stresses to some extent the underlying drama. As Heidegger once wrote, philosophy speaks Greek. But Greece – and in particular its political philosophy and moors – is also the phantasy of a European culture trying to go back to its pre-christian heritage, when gods were many and it is thought retrospectively that reason governed the polis… A phantasy of democracy, a utopia of past harmony continues to haunt our times. We perhaps need this glorious reference so that our thoughts may find support.     

The characters of Utopia are naturally adopting the posture of drama while standing or sitting on the bleachers. They behave all’antica, the yellow cloak becomes a himation; the naked feet bring us back twenty centuries. Of course, the artifice of the playing all the roles by oneself helps quite a bit in the decision process, and Plato/Socrates did not have to suffer the many obstructions of emotions and self-interest while driving the chariot of reason through the landscapes of his dialogues. Now, democracy as we view it today is in reality very un-Greek in its principle: as George Steiner profoundly notes in Death of the Tragedy, the Jewish spirit is thoroughly convinced that the order of the universe and of human condition are accessible to reason, and hence to justice, while tragedy is the reverse, the recognition that life is overshadowed by forces inaccessible to reason: the destruction of Troy by fire is definitive because it is the result of human hatred and the capricious and mysterious choice of destiny. Against the quiet debates of the ekklesia, one always has to contend, under one guise or another, with the admonition of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus:   

Caesar

Come, there was never any great thing yet

Aspired, but by violence or fraud:

And he that sticks for folly of a conscience

To reach it…

Catilina

Is a good religious fool.

Ariane Loze is unquestionably on the path of an interesting renewal of political art, somewhere at the crossroads of social criticism, an exploration of the human discomfort generated by the current structure and workings of the polis, and what it is legitimate to name action art, to the extent that it intends to interact with the so-called « ordinary » citizens (you wonder who is an « extra-ordinary » citizen…), and influence the aims and organisation of our societies. It is open enough to avoid the perilous reefs of any hastily-thought « solutions » which give raise to so much of today’s politically naive expressions of art. In short, this is an artist to followed very closely.

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