Images of the Sacred

Anaël Pigeat

Making reality cohabitate with what escapes us

Interview with Anaël Pigeat

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The question of the sacred is omnipresent in Clément Cogitore’s work. His films and photos are the fruit of rituals he occasionally discloses. But religious imagery in his work is often deceptive, for the feeling of sacred mainly pierces through visions of daily existence, even in fiction.

The Atelier 

To start, why did you pick this title for the book, while you yourself don’t really use a permanent studio?

I belong to a generation and “family” of artists who generally don’t have studios. My work develops in keeping with and along with the places that open their doors to the production process: residencies, shooting studios, editing rooms and photo labs. Yet the studio does exist in the form of a carry-on size suitcase and a 2-inch-thick Apple laptop that contains the entirety of my works, images, archives and projects, which are automatically backed-up onto a Google server somewhere deep in Texas.

For my first monograph, I wanted a book that offered a visit to this studio, that displayed all of my works as well as the images that preceded them, provoked them and accompanied them. Kind of like the walls of a painter’s studio, covered with photos, drawings, reproductions and sketches.

It’s also a chance to visually reflect on the creation process and the “ghost images” haunting each new image that is produced. This archeological research is an opportunity for me to underscore the connection I make between art history – more specifically Byzantine and Italian religious painting – and all the moving images that interest me, from Robert Bresson to Batman.

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Rituals 

In terms of your works, you often speak of rituals: rituals of cinema as well as new ones linked to the process of video. Where does this interest come from?

I look for a way of making images that affects these images. This is accompanied by gestures, staging and direction – a form of theatricality. In the ritual of a film shoot for example, the film being handled and imprinted by light makes the images sacred. In a different sense, taking videos with a cell phone and posting them immediately on Youtube is also a kind of ritual, though one that carries a different meaning. Making pictures for Youtube is extremely different from making them for a movie theater.

In ancient times, images were made for magic ceremonies or religious processions. Even today, in a small village in Abruzzo for example, people gather once a year to cover a statue of the Virgin with live snakes and carry it on their shoulders in a procession through the village. The image or the form must be accompanied by the gestures of a human society in order to have meaning. In a way, Youtube is an expanded village, with its own codes, gestures and celebrations.

You seem to have moved from rituals of cinema to your own rituals of creation. What’s more, your images often depict rituals (Passage, We Are Legion), like a mise en abyme of the idea.

It’s true. We’re also reminded of my film Parmi nous where we see a free party in a forest. What is it that makes people plan to meet up in a clearing deep in some forest, crank the music full blast and all turn towards the speakers and bob their heads without saying a word? The volume of sound makes it impossible to communicate and you’re left with nothing but the experience, which is both collective and solitary at the same time. To me, it’s a transfigured form of an ancient liturgical ritual where the faithful and priest all face the symbolic signs of the altar, bearing witness to the presence of another reality. Nobody looks at anyone else and there’s no potential for communication, yet everyone shares something.

Imagery of the sacred

Why did you place so much emphasis on religious architecture in Passages or Angélu(s)x?

I wanted to play off the ambivalence at the heart of the questions that arise when one attempts to represent the sacred: either we’re faced with something monumental that represents dogma or power, and is imposed upon the community by brute force, or else we have another representation of the sacred which has to do with an unseizable and evanescent grace instead.

What do you get from quoting sacred images?

I got into art through religious painting. For me, it didn’t start in Rome or Byzantium but in Lascaux or the Chauvet Cave. They say people began painting when they saw their shadows projected on the cave walls from the firelight. Initially, making images meant communicating with the spirits. Today, despite all our technological progress and innovation, very little has changed. Walking into a movie theater to sit before a screen is a bit like entering a cave to watch shadows dance. It always boils down to stepping into a different and often magical reality…

For example, in Memento Mori, a video where I tried to reinterpret the codes of vanitas in painting, the cave in the film looks a bit like a skull. Placing an image or elements from painting, like in a treasure hunt, is a way to make the eye recreate the invisible links.

How did your stay at the Villa Medici influence your research?

The influence was very strong. From Rome, I went to see frescoes in Padua, Assisi and Palermo. It was quite disconcerting to see these paintings in the places where they were conceived. In the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, the layers of time are fascinating, as if something were radiating up from the relics in the crypt all the way to Giotto’s frescoes and out over the fields of olive trees in Umbria.

My photo Annonciation is closely tied to Antonello da Messina’s Annunziata, housed in Palermo. It’s one of the first times in the history of art that the annunciation is depicted without the figure of the angel. The “off-scene” – what’s outside the frame – makes an appearance, and suddenly the sacred bursts into the eyes of the viewer. The subject recounts the angel. This is one of the most important questions in cinema: how to recount on screen what is happening off screen. 

You often use a polyptych form, which is highly present in religious art. Is this another way of bringing the off-scene into play?

I’m more interested in narration than off-scene. The polyptych allows me to begin a story in one screen and continue it in another, or at least have two parallel stories which don’t alternate but respond to each other. Since I never create series of images, this is an alternative. It also gives me a lot of freedom, because in cinema, every image you make follows another image and precedes yet a third; you can only give shape to it later, during editing. 

And going back to the question of ritual… 

In religious art, a polyptych is an image that is opened in a certain way at certain moments of the year according to the liturgical calendar. The Isenheim Altarpiece, which is now in a museum, can no longer be moved. All its panels are visible at the same time. Obviously, it’s very practical for the visitor, but it does change the experience of seeing it the way it was designed to be seen.

Another example, this time in terms of architecture: in Rome, when you see Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew cycle in San Luigi dei Francesi, you view it in the very spot it was designed for. The light in the paintings seems to come from the windows of the church. This intelligence of the connection between architecture and painting obviously feeds our perception of it. 

According to you, do images always have a place?

Nowadays, something as simple as Vimeo links lets a curator put together an entire exhibition on the other side of the world and have people visit it online in a few clicks.

But traveling three thousand kilometers to see Rublev’s Trinity in Moscow is a radically different experience. Of course the systems of representation in religious painting sacralize images, but so do the journeys they engender.

I grew up in a valley of the Vosges mountains in Alsace where I have a friend, a painter and puppeteer named Bjorn Füller, who has been like a grandfather to me in terms of art. When he was still a young man, he and his wife decided to settle there, in the forest, to live near the Isenheim Altarpiece. The fact they chose where to live based on the presence of a slab of wood painted in the XVIth century blew me away, and made me realize the magical force images can have. Today, images don’t really have a place anymore. Digital is everywhere and nowhere: there’s no original and no copy, just identical files. Part of my work consists in trying to connect the experience of the magical image to the digital world.

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The invisible sacred

Beyond the iconography linked to religion, you also use a lot of daily images where the idea of the sacred pierces through. You seem to work between the visible and the invisible.

I often practice a critical distance through imagery of the sacred. Angélu(s)x reproaches a cathedral’s monumentality that shows us we’re nothing. To subvert the monumentality, I use the space as a playing field, like an enormous playhouse I float a balloon of light around in. I’m interested in the representation of the sacred when it withstands the systems of control formed by religion and dogma, when it is enigmatic and mysterious.

In other words, you sacralize daily images and de-sacralize religious images.

It’s precisely these two positions that are illustrated in We Are Legion and Annonciation. The idea is, through mise-en-scène, to capture a moment and situation which, based on elements of daily life, turns out to be the signs of a hidden reality. For me, Robert Bresson is the absolute master of the sacralization of humdrum daily life in the cinema.

Then how do you define sacred?

It’s something that is unresolved in people’s minds and is connected to very simple questions that are present from childhood on: love, death, the beyond. These three questions are chasms for reflection, and they’re what sacred writings and mythology attempt to answer. To my mind, that’s also what art and fiction are.

Images of fire are recurrent in your works: the riots in Burning Cities, the candles in Bielutine, the bonfire in We Are Legion

I figure everything began around a fire. In ancient times, men would hole up in a cave at dusk, huddling around fires that protected them from wild animals. Outside the cave it was dark and cold, and the world was a dangerous, brutal place. They would tell stories, and the light cast shadows on the walls, illustrating their tales. Those were future images.

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Search for grace

In Chroniques, the voiceover says: “The idea of grace he managed to create was born at the very moment we participated in an image, and that didn’t know it yet.” Is the grace you speak of the appearance of images?

Werner Herzog, a filmmaker I like a lot, explores the question of the sacred in a way that is diametrically opposed to my own. He’s not a believer whereas I am, or at least every other day. In Grizzly Man, Herzog takes the footage of someone who filmed himself with bears and wound up getting eaten by them. He explores the images and is dazzled by these completely serendipitous moments, for example the wind blowing across an embankment, that was shot when the camera had been forgotten at his feet. That reminds me of Saint John: “The wind doth blow where it will: you hear its sound, but know not from whence it comes nor whither it goes.” A film set, a theater stage or a painter’s studio are places that allow you to prepare for and capture such moments – such grace.

In your films, there are a lot of images of images, for example Bielutine, Annonciation or Memento Mori (when the frame of a painting appears at the end). Why so many frames?

In Memento Mori or else in Visités, there are rigid frames which often express a power – visible or invisible – exerted on the characters. But using a certain contradictory effect, I make it so that within the frames, something very free or even untamed arises.

In general, the presence of a camera is brutal; to remedy this, a pact is often established between the filmer and the filmee. In fiction, with actors, it’s very simple: a contract stipulates that filmer and filmee are going to work together to create a story and both of them will be paid for their work. But it’s more complicated with documentary. In Bielutine, violence is first at work through the intrusion of my camera into my characters’ home, but these characters remain in control of their image and play off their power of seduction, like the characters in a novel. And the film oscillates between my power and theirs. 

Is this question of frame linked to the idea of the sacred? 

A frame is above all a boundary. Framing means excluding things. And portraying the sacred means trying to seize one piece of a puzzle. Because we portray the whole by showing the fragment. We portray presence by lack.

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Fiction

You’re working on a fictional feature film. This is a first.

I’m preparing a film on Afghanistan. At the end of the war, twenty or so men are sent to a valley to prepare the passage of a convoy. Shortly after, soldiers start disappearing one by one on the mountain. The military panics and the whole missing persons protocol is set in motion. Soon, it’s no longer a question of war but of finding the missing men. And over the course of the investigation, confronted with what appears to be an irrational phenomenon, the men gradually stop reacting to facts and start reacting to what they consider signs, abandoning the realm of protocol for the realm of faith. My work consists more and more of depicting this mental process that, to keep the mind from toppling into the abyss, pushes it to believe in the existence of something other than what can be seen.

For you, is fiction a new way of exploring the sacred?

As Borges said, “explaining a fact means joining it to another.” And according to him, poetry originated back in the caveman days when a child came racing into the cave yelling, “Wolf!”, when there was no wolf. Just think of the day a human being first used language to represent something that didn’t exist or wasn’t visible: how mind-blowing that must have been! This is what literature and the history of art spring from. Fiction is a way of organizing the chaos and mystery of the world. And thus cohabitating with it, along with its absurdity and brutality.

Translation : Michelle Noteboom

Anaël Pigeat
Is an art critic and editor-in-chief of Artpress.