Clément Cogitore’s Critical Calm

Dominique Païni

Artists of the 2000s who employ the cinema don’t feel like they’re involved in some kind of transgressive exodus, or that they are bad boys of art in the way Picabia, Léger and Duchamp so blissfully desired to be in the ’20s with Entracte or Ballet mécanique et anémique.

Clément Cogitore makes films, including documentaries, without making any distinction between the two facets of his identity: artist AND filmmaker. It wasn’t until this new century that making films was immediately synonymous with making art. Films no longer require lengthy waiting periods before they can be recognized as art, and Cogitore’s generation of filmmaker/artists doesn’t have to wait to see their films invested with the status of artwork.

Still, Cogitore is not a filmmaker whose films cry out, “Caution, artwork!” It is his production of images as a whole that blurs the diversity of narrative and visual systems where the still image continues to hold considerable ground. Cogitore grants the same importance to all his works whether they are exhibited or screened. If we were to reproach him for striving to be a jack-of-all-trades – assuming curiosity and artistic voraciousness were grounds for reproach – his potential denial would be a poor defense. Instead, such a reproach could be fittingly welcomed by remarking that his films make up a genuine catalogue of what’s possible in cinema today.

If we look simply at his film production, so far Cogitore has tried his hand at fiction (Visités, Parmi nous), re-use of stock footage (Chroniques, Archipel) and film installation (Passage, Travel(ling)). And as if that weren’t enough for someone who once chose interdisciplinary studies at the Fresnoy-National studio for contemporary art, some of his endeavors blend all these registers into one single film (Burning Cities, Memento Mori), not to mention the impression of documentary most of his films create. If I had to put my finger on the specific character of his precociously confirmed body of work, it would no doubt be his deliberate choice of unrestricted enunciative experimentation.

A few artists from the previous generation, for example the trio Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, have also demonstrated a comparable polymorphic capacity. One thing that characterizes these artists, who are representative of art from the ’90s, is their refusal to pin down the register of each of their films. Huygue’s Hitchcockian remakes, Parreno’s re-enactment of Robert Kennedy’s final journey, or even Gonzalez-Foerster’s Copacabana dancing beach each blend different registers into one single film gesture: fiction, archival footage, installation and, in certain aspects, a documentary intent.

Clément Cogitore stands out from this generation by the remarkable heterogeneity of each of his films, as if they weren’t made by the same person. The two filmed installations in Passage and Travel(ling) could not be further from one another. The underground architecture of Passage, whose telluric darkness is barely disturbed by the openings reminiscent of those of a church – actually a storage site for sculptures, incomplete and inanimate bodies – strives to create surprise at the issue of a funerary assessment of dilapidated, forgotten and protected works, completed by a mysterious Last Supper. The infernal machine whose sound accompanies the tracking shot intentionally disturbs the majestic effects of the tomb.

The playful performance in Travel(ling), where a video of a road filing by in daytime is projected onto the back of a moving truck at night, is far from the monumental solemnity of the previous installation. Yet, through the coexistence of these two contrasting pieces within the same body of work, we can see what emerges in other works by Cogitore. Particularly in some of his staged photos such as We are Legion, which we aren’t quite sure how to interpret: preparing for or anxiously awaiting an Anonymous meeting (the masks), burlesque situation, or even a mock Déjeuner sur l’herbe adapted as much from Manet as Jean Renoir.

To illustrate this deliberate choice of suspension of meaning, we could also mention the 2-meter tall photo of a medieval knight whose black armor was apparently designed by the director of Robocop, Paul Verhoeven. Cogitore has the knight ride through the gardens of the Villa Medici in Rome holding a pink smoke bomb, thus catching the spectator off guard: though the symbols may seem obvious at first, when we look closely, we find ourselves in an interpretive quandary. As a matter of fact, Cogitore’s images invert the perception of advertising images. While the latter appear empty yet ultimately contain rich signs for semiologists, Cogitore’s images impose themselves as complex and filled with meaning, yet fade into an unexpected, generalized vanitas.

Nothing connects within Cogitore’s works, or between them. How can we justify, within the same project, the re-enacted documentary objective view on clandestinity in Parmi nous with the inopportune nocturnal presences – the inner ghosts – of a young woman accidentally gone blind in Visités? Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be forcing things or grasping at straws to note the presiding situation of imprisonment both films share. In fact, when one watches the ensemble of his films, it is striking that the captive state experienced by fictional characters or the more real ones in documentary films be so subjected to it, from the crew of the stranded nuclear submarine in Un Archipel to the simulated landscape enclosing the wolves in Memento Mori. Or even the claustrophobic Annonciation deprived of any opening provided by traditional linear perspective, and in which the Virgin receives the “good news” by sms.

Clément Cogitore does not seek – and this is the distinctive quality of a generation indifferent to the notion of “auteur” – the superficial unity of a work where every instant offers proof of a coherent world and stylistic manner that has become its trademark. On the contrary, what distends or injures paradoxically connects and engenders a critical tone inscribed in an appeased attitude, a sort of “dynamic of rest” to borrow the eloquent formula of art historian Aby Warburg, once more in vogue today. For although what Cogitore shows is sometimes culled from a recent news event and the implicit subjects of his films are characterized by the mood of the times, Cogitore’s manner is free from the facilities of violence. His work ressembles him: a certain serenity, availability and calm which is contradictory considering the undeniable ideological and moral indignation translated by his images.

His fascination for what bends but doesn’t break could remind us of Robert Bresson, a director he studies attentively. The Biblical formula Noli me tangere could also add a spiritual and erotic dimension to what emanates from his images. A work made of lightboxes – a leg stepping out of the frame paired with somebody’s neck – takes this eternally unsettling injunction as its title.

Cogitore’s original work on images – those he finds as well as those he creates, and even more so the deliberate confusion he likes to produce between fake and real stock footage (Chroniques) – circumvents too-obvious analogies of political demonstration and employs enigmatic suspense by imposing a mysterious legitimacy on iconographic comparisons. For Clément Cogitore, what matters is convincing the viewer of the necessity of profound faith in the poetic wound separating and associating images within an installation space or a film montage. With this artist, screening and exhibiting demonstrate a contemporary virtuosity staked on giving equal importance to the fate of characters and to the fate of images, which actually is hardly any different from what religious painting is staked on.

Translation : Michelle Noteboom

Dominique Païni
He is an art and film critic, and curator. From 1993 to 2000, he was director of the Cinémathèque Française then exhibition director at the Centre Georges Pompidou from 2000 to 2005. Today, he teaches at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris.