There is something of the reporter in Clément Cogitore. His artist-filmmaker works, created on arguments and in a documentary style, seem to come out, first of all, from the journalist’s rhetoric: whether he treats a concert of trance music, events at Tahir Square where, with the fall of President Mubarak, the destiny of Egyptian democracy was played out, or the disappearance – real or fictional – of an English nuclear submarine; whether he films his visit in the apartment of the Bielutins, an old couple of collectors living confined in their Moscow apartment in the midst of their paintings or whether he follows, in the bottom of a grotto lost in the midst of ruins in Rome, the making-of of the photograph of a lamb taken – one knows nothing about it – for religious or advertising purposes, Clément Cogitore chooses his subjects and handles them like reports. To create his images, he builds a film idiom that corresponds to what would be free indirect speech in literature, which assumes the presence of a virtual, but never asserted narrator. In free indirect speech, the voices of the characters and that of the narrator are entangled, in such a way that one never knows who is speaking, and at what distance, from what angle.
The visual equivalent of this polyphonic superimposition of voices should undoubtedly be sought, in Cogitore’s films, in the almost permanent inscription of images that are seen inside the images, an inscription that takes on the value of a signature: by displaying their indirect character, the images show other images that thrust the real into a background that is ever more enigmatic, increasingly less accessible, and signals, as an indirect consequence, the presence of another view, located off camera, omnipresent and discreet: digital images first, disseminated by the cell phone screens that stud the concert’s dense crowd, through the TV set on which the panicked demonstrators on Tahir Square, dispersed by the police, are perceived, or through the monitoring screens on which the images shot inside the submarine by thermal cameras – one of Cogitore’s favorite scopic devices – which makes it possible to see what eludes visibility, appear and disappear. Images of paintings as well, which proliferate in the hallways and nooks and crannies of the Byelutins’ home where they form frames inside the frame in which figures appear whom the collectors address as though they were alive; paleo-Christian frescoes that become visible, fleetingly, in the light of a flashlight, on the walls of the grotto with the lamb transformed into a set on which a Christ scenography is replayed. In this way, disparate visibility systems are built, a metareality in which the indirect images – leafed through, reshot, reused, interrupted, reprocessed – invade the visual spaces with their oppressive and discreet presence, always function in a closed circuit to appear, ultimately, as the images of other images whose reality is definitively evacuated and that are replaced by an objectivity in the second degree.
Clément Cogitore has a preference for the night: the bluish night of a concert hall where the mass of spectators, compact and seemingly weightless, swept by the beams of the projectors, forms an organic cloud studded with cell phone screens while, as a subtitle superimposed on the shadows that cover the walls of the image, an elegy by Rainer Maria Rilke recounts the angelic nature of the vision; the orangey night of Tahrir Square on which one can make out, in a low-angle shot, the crowd of demonstrators being dispersed like ants; the black night of a submarine governed by a paranoid admiral that suddenly disappears from the radar monitors; the darkness of the cave with the lamb suddenly lit by flashlights and reflectors; the chiaroscuro of the apartment-museum where the Byelutins live out of time amid their painting ghosts that come to life through the light of candles with a fragile and artificial existence…
Therefore the night, but also its metaphors (that of sleep and madness, that of the darkness of history, both collective and personal), whose meaning is never completely revealed to us and that is shown in a fragmentary or enigmatic fashion, glimmers piercing the shadow like so many flashes of meaning: no explanation, only the narratives or tableaux laden with a meaning by turns dreamlike and mystical. It is in this way that these chronicles, whose invisible narrator Cogitore becomes, take on an irreal coloring that the artificial lighting with which they are bathed to escape, almost imperceptibly, their document destiny and to ultimately reveal their load of strangeness, accentuates: made of ellipses, enigmas, semi-narrative open forms oscillating without being able to decide between documentary and fiction, they are, like dream narratives, incomplete and partial. Like the image of the dream, the image of the film is not the image of what it shows: it is not a reproduction instrument, but one of transformation and displacement.
Clément Cogitore thus uses the documentary texture of the image to electrify, in it, its evocation power and question its analogous or reflecting function: his films take in charge, up to their aesthetic and imaginary consequences, the revolution the digital has brought about and the fact that the production of images is no longer limited to a single status: proliferating, migratory, they are no longer part of a simple system and questions the specificity of the signs of showing. These images, however, in their essential and intimate mutability, and even due to this mutability, are obviously dependent on a story: fragments of visual memory are brought together in them whose iconography taught us to trace migration through the history of forms and that continue to rise to the surface, like floating signifiers, in this basically labile universe that precedes and henceforth influences our experience of the real.
Let us consequently put forward the theory that Clément Cogitore’s five films, which compose this opus, rather than the separate works, constitute the five chapters or five movements of a unique body of work that describes the survival and migration of figures and vision systems through time – the time of the story whose eclipses and falterings Cogitore shows, but also the personal time of the singular subject who when the subject topples into sleep or insanity, sees burst forth from the darkness the crowd of specters whose appearance he organizes in a narrative. Image of bodies floating in the space of a concert hall that evokes the angel-studded clouds of baroque painting; allegory of the mystical lamb taken from the paleo-Christian iconography of the Good Shepherd; figure (nothing of which we will see but whose sole witness is the voice off) of the naked admiral kneeling at the bottom of his apparatus in front of a radio that evokes the representations of Saint Jerome in the desert…
This work on the time of the representation also concerns the formal components and the ontological determinations of images: as in the nonlinear perspectives of medieval painting, the Tahrir Square, owing to the irreal blurring created by refilming the television screen, seems to be an irreal and split space on which the police, separated from the demonstrators they are chasing, appear out of scale, like threatening giants; the Byelutins’ apartment seems crossed by an animist gust that makes the status of the painting figures that the collectors address as icons unstable. Between documentary and fiction, Clément Cogitore does not place his films in a specific representation system: using a deliberately loose style, he crosses all the registers of visuality without being configured by any of them, questioning the strictly reflecting and immediate function of recording and projection and, through this, the witness function of images; if one had to name his practice, perhaps the designation of essay would be the most accurate, with what this approach incurs of risk, experimentation but also critical elucidation, that is, a way of reinventing, each time, without masking its historical nature, the rhythms and fluctuations of the visible.
‘The art of war says many things about our contemporary world.’ Clément Cogitore has verified this hypothesis at least twice since the beginning of 2015.
In his first full-length feature film, Ni Le Ciel, Ni La Terre currently showing after being selected by Cannes’ Critics’ Week, coinciding via a progressive transition with a Western notion of war – we are here in the company of a French garrison at the Afghan border – towards a system of beliefs carried by the ‘enemy’ which spells trouble for the most Cartesian minds, of heroes and spectators alike.
But also in the DIGITAL DESERT exhibition currently held at the White Project gallery in Paris. Like the painter Jean Fautrier who in his day, at the end of the Second World War, evoked in equal measure admiration and scandal with the series Otages (Hostages, 46 hideous and formless masks inspired by photographs of the dead), Clément Cogitore offers a representation rather than an image of modern conflict and its collateral victims.
A little like looking at Fautrier’s canvasses of the time, the four photographic diptychs presented in the gallery first remind one of aerial images of charnel-houses that have abounded in our collective imagination in recent years. But doubt progressively insinuates itself: what first look like remains turn out to be military uniforms littering the ground. Taken in the Moroccan desert, Clément Cogitore points out that the series is ‘the first without human figures’ and brings to the stage a new camouflage technique called ‘digital desert’ that allows one to escape not an entrenched enemy anymore but the invisible eye of drones. How to disappear is Clément Cogitore’s big theme, whose film already focused on the disappearance of four French soldiers.
A 1992 law prohibits the distribution of satellite images that exceed 50cm/pixel to prevent any risk of litigation concerning the invasion of privacy. Yet, as much as this resolution makes the ‘surgical strikes’ of drones very difficult to detect, in turn it also means that their targets cannot be seen if they remain under the threshold of representability. Amongst other things, this is what philosopher Grégoire Chamayou decrypts in his latest book La Théorie du drone (Drone Theory) understood as an instrument of violence without reciprocity.
With his images, artist Clément Cogitore shows what is at play in the transition from the famous ‘jungle’ weave of brown and khaki military uniforms of the 20thCentury to this pixilated motif of the 21st Century that scrambles the most sophisticated receptors. In this David versus Goliath fight, one can’t help but be reminded of ‘Razzle Dazzle’, the camouflage method very prized by First World War vessels. In other words, an optical wall-painting that prevented the adversary from knowing the precise position and course of the ship to be torpedoed. Obsolete as a result of the advent of radar, this ruse inspired by an artist and Royal Navy reserve demonstrates the formal inventiveness that presides the art of war. But if the French army once called upon avant-garde artists and cubists in particular, requisitioned for their technical know-how regarding the deformation of reality, today it is to American engineering that we owe the ‘digital desert’ that ironically, as Cogitore points out, ends up clothing ‘the soldiers of Daech or the Russian army.’
Therefore, what interests the artist here is both the subject, that of a rapport de force now in the arena of technical innovation, as much as the new aesthetic landscape it gives rise to. In Ni Le Ciel Ni La Terre, Clément Cogitore makes abundant use of surveillance footage, thermal imaging and night vision.
Once again, in the exhibition at the White Project gallery, the language of art consolidates the political reach of the images. ‘I’m a hyper believer’ jokes Cogitore who has made of the superimposition of the narratives, factual or rumoured, and combination of the writing registers, material and political, his hallmark. ‘A great part of my work focuses on this, on the way narrative resolves the real, on its absolute necessity’.
Making reality cohabitate with what escapes us
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
« Ô, être mort un jour, et les connaître infiniment, toutes les étoiles : car comment, comment les oublier ?» Rainer Maria Rilke
Elégies est le film d’une nuit dans laquelle les présences anonymes sont en proie à leur solitude ; car elles ont beau danser en rythme, côte à côte, elles ne se touchent pas, pas même ne se regardent. Les sifflements retentissent, les éclairs stroboscopiques nappent la marée humaine, les basses se font de plus en plus sourdes, et seuls les écrans des téléphones portables, faibles astres, renvoient l’image vague de ce qui se passe sur une scène que nous ne verrons pas. Clément Cogitore finira par filmer l’artifice du décor, détournant le regard vers la machinerie, comme par pudeur peut-être, de peur d’être trop élégiaque. Mais, l’élégie est là, battante comme le cœur de Rilke sur le sentier de Duino, écrivant sa lamentation devant un monde au devenir de ruine, endeuillé de toutes les existences qu’il a abritées, un monde du silence succédant à la musique, de l’abandon succédant à l’amour. Rilke donne la parole à la « rumeur des jeunes morts » qui peuplent les églises de Rome ou de Naples, aux êtres en suspens, parvenant à faire entendre leur voix, pour peu qu’on les écoute. Ces rumeurs — qu’elles soient d’ancestrales croyances ou de parasitaires fictions numériques — viennent du fond des âges, grésillent comme les voix résonnant dans une mauvaise radio, fourmillent de toutes parts. Jamais elles n’ont été aussi assourdissantes, à la narration confuse et fragmentée, et nous n’en sortirons pas. Cogitore décide donc d’en faire sa matière première, avec un engagement pictural. Ainsi, par la photographie, il revisite la peinture classique, comme la Déposition du corps du Christ. Il choisit ce moment précis de bascule : juste après la Crucifixion et l’acte irréparable, juste avant la Pietà et la déploration. Un corps est déposé, rendu au monde des vivants, avant que d’être mis au tombeau. C’est l’instant précis où les larmes montent, mais personne ne pleure encore. L’effusion et l’expression de la douleur infinie de Marie viendront plus tard. Attendons un instant, baignés dans une lumière d’or, au cœur de la forêt. La photographie intitulée L’Atelier est, elle aussi, énigmatique, donnant à voir quelques outils de prise de vue, non loin d’une grotte, sorte de trou de brouillard au milieu d’une nature originaire qui devrait être le sujet de l’image. Tout est en place pour que le miracle se produise, par-delà la brume s’épaississant. Le gouffre est le lieu d’une possible apparition, possible miracle ou résurrection ; mais ici encore, c’est le hors-champ qui règne en maître. Les écrans de contrôle peuplant nos vies ont bien remplacé les vieilles légendes et les anciennes visitations. De leurs lumières bleutées, ils diffusent leur savoir face à nos visages avides et l’on en vient à se demander s’ils ne sont pas devenus de nouveaux autels. Cogitore cherche en permanence la scène sur laquelle pourraient avoir lieu les sacrifices et les rituels d’aujourd’hui, et il fait le pari que notre monde abrite encore un feu et des fresques invisibles. Parions avec lui.
Something happened. It doesn’t really matter what. What matters is observing the effects and trying to position yourself in terms of them. Clément Cogitore’s artistic gesture lies in the association of these two questions: What’s happening, right now? What stance to take in terms of what’s happening? A submarine filled with weapons disappears then reappears, its captain found naked on his knees, mute (Archipel, 2011). Wolves roam through a foggy playground (Memento Mori, 2012). A couple grows old in their Moscow apartment surrounded by the greatest Renaissance paintings (Bielutine. 2011). A young man trying to cross a closely surveilled border contrives a means of survival in the woods with the acquaintances he’s made (Parmi nous, 2011).
These are situations. They summon a story, a geneology which isn’t voiced. They stimulate associations of images and ideas which remain unformulated, free for the person encountering the works to imagine or reflect upon. There are holes, many holes. Sometimes these are ellipses, huge ellipses taking on the dimension of the risk of nuclear war; sometimes they are gaps, gaps between images and sounds, between verisimilitude and affirmation, between realism and stylization. Faith, of course… but which faith? The fullness of Clément Cogitore’s work, and partially the difficulty of grasping it as it presents itself today, hinges on his way of tackling the issue of faith (what artist doesn’t, one way or another?) without considering whether we understand what the term means. In other words, he embodies a change of era that could be symbolized by the comparison of his film Bielutine. with Orson Welles’ F for Fake. For Welles, it was a question of the playful or even cunning movement back and forth over the boundary separating true from false. And for Welles, the question is posited from an identifiable place, that of the creator (Creator), artist or falsifier, artist and falsifier, artist because falsifier. In Cogitore’s film, shot in 2011, these attributes and divisions of the world and ideas have disappeared. The boundary between true and false is no longer dealt with whatsoever, and the artist has been replaced by collectors, depositaries – though we’re not sure how – of objects we can no longer question in terms of true or false.
Also not dealt with is the fact that the objects themselves, which in the former value system would be priceless treasures with an exceptional aura, seem no different from the knick-knacks filling the elderly couple’s apartment – not to mention the cats, insistent reminders of Giacometti’s remark about what to save in case a museum burns. But that would still be thinking in terms of dichotomy (“life” vs. “art”), whereas here it’s a question of a whole which is both unique – including what binary thinking has distinguished – and much more multifaceted.
What makes these infinitely disparate elements (a Rubens, a cat, a toy, an elderly woman, a crow, the history of Russia) hold together is in fact faith. But once more, it’s difficult to assign a place to it right off the bat, because this faith isn’t that of the viewer, nor of the filmmaker, nor that of any sort of authority who professes to speak the truth or to share the illusion of reality. It is all that and more. It is constructed randomly and erratically, in a manner that can only be actualized for each individual when he or she finds a stance and distance. Clément Cogitore practices an art which does not correspond to any known definition, insofar as he sets up – with technical and sensorial means – a proposition which undoes its own established place, which we might call the place of mise-en-scène, giving the expression as broad a meaning as possible, well beyond its usual connotations in theater or cinema. If the mise-en-scène were the construction of a point of view, a distance and an angle of approach, Cogitore’s process aims to, on the contrary, dislocate such a procedure, to fragment it and bring into play a multitude of viewpoints, reference systems, approaches or distances, displacements or immobilizations – something which is done for every “spectator”, a word we’ll use for lack of a better, but which isn’t appropriate since it refers to other practices and stances. This fragmentation in no way means dispersal or scattering, but on the contrary the establishment of a multidimensional mental space, of which the polyptych Cohabitations (2008), with its three panels of images and its panel of sound, offers a “simple” example, or in any case a more explicit one in terms of construction.
Critics commenting on Cogitore’s work have rightly underscored the importance of rituals for him. Indeed, the different practices that tend to generate the flow of belief which bodies and things get caught up in are systems aiming to engender faith. But they are only one of the possible ways to create a favorable sensory state. One of Clément Cogitore’s oldest and shortest videos, Burning Cities (2009, 5 minutes) may provide not the key – for there isn’t one – but at least a crystallization. This montage of nocturnal sequences lit by fire and flame stimulates the imagination in a way that doesn’t rely on any established procedure. A great many fire rituals exist, but fire itself is not a ritual, and the encounter with blazes, bonfires, explosions and various fires does not obey any rules or organization. It’s the absence of rules itself which unleashes faith, contrary to (always possibly) manipulative strategies of any kind of propaganda or mise-en-scène.
Because the issue here may seem to stem from a play on words, yet is powerfully and disturbingly profound: the possibility of believing without having to believe “in” anything at all – what all ritual points to. Clément Cogitore offers a literal illustration in the odd translation of a line from Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar. Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) asks, “Mais vous ne croyez donc en rien?” (literally, “don’t you believe in anything?”), while the English subtitle in a DVD version reads Do you believe in nothing?, which is not the same thing. The possibility of believing in nothing (instead of “not believing in anything”) is made explicit through the way Cogitore uses it as a screenshot appearing in a layout of six images, a composition that accompanies the diptych Noli me tangere in this publication and explicitly calls to mind the theme of faith in relation to touch and physical contact. This is literally what is at stake in Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, echoed by two other stills from Bresson: the hands of the lovers from Balthazar which don’t touch, and the active, adept hand of Pickpocket, a flesh and bone manifestation, living puppet on the “strange path which had to be taken” towards grace.
Believing in nothing is not not believing, quite the opposite. It means being open to the indecision of the world. It means anticipating the adventure of the missing submarine without being assigned the police work of deciding whether the captain had a mystic experience, or was hypnotized by the Russians or Chinese, or struck by a Martian ray, or whatever else. It means watching and listening to Ely and Nina Bielutine in their lair filled with treasures, stories and animals without pulling out your lie detector or truth serum. It means accepting the wolves roaming through the fog and the echos of Monteverdi or Bossuet in a state of augmented availability which the reframing by a more explicit system at the end does not devalue, but on the contrary pushes a bit further still. It means entering a complex dance of attempts and abandons by Amin, the main character in Parmi nous, with the necessary knowledge of the fate of the illegal immigrants around Sangatte as well as another receptivity to bodies, lights, movements which, far from minimizing the difficulty of situations, redeploys them differently in a way to share them with people who haven’t experienced them.
Instead of “minimizing”, I almost wrote “estheticizing”, since this verb has become pejorative, heavy with opprobrium that would reduce (?) a state of facts to its formal stakes. No doubt we should worry about redeeming this word instead, particularly for what Clément Cogitore does. By showing the extent to which such an endeavor of densifying the formal dimension – far from reducing its scope or what it offers the senses – can in some cases, on the contrary, augment and deepen it. Take the loop of Passages (2006) which lasts 4 minutes and is never-ending: the capacity to, in one sole (lateral and majestic) movement, make the ensemble of sensations and metaphors associated with ideas of prison and ruins, religion and museum, memory of the Last Supper and industry interact, with such little technical means and artifice, is an amazing feat which serves, indeed, a kind of faith.
Devoid of any systematism, yet another affirmation of the creator’s preeminence (“my” point of view, “my” form, “my” rhythm), each proposal offers a form which is particularly powerful and at the same time particularly respectful of those it addresses, in the paradoxical construction of the remote contacts (Noli me tangere) that enable the “situations” which Clément Cogitore’s work engenders. Each one in its own way sets out a relationship to the world impalpably shot through with an unprecedented re-illumination which, beyond its unique stakes, the double journey of the projector and the moving screen in Travel(ing) (2005), or even better the movement of the luminous globe in Angelu(s)x (2008), would already be, and once and for all, the official trace.
De Clément Cogitore, on connaissait des vidéos oscillant entre le champ de l’art contemporain (lauréat du salon de Montrouge en 2011) et celui du cinéma (sélectionné à la Quinzaine des réalisateurs à Cannes la même année ). On connaît moins, en revanche, ses photographies et ses installations, deux domaines que sa première exposition personnelle à la galerie White Project lui a donné l’occasion d’approfondir. Ses films étaient imprégnés de peinture ; les œuvres qu’il présente ici le sont encore davantage, car à la Villa Médicis où il est pensionnaire cette année, il passe des journées entières à regarder les tableaux des églises de Rome, d’Assise ou de Padoue. Mais une extrême contemporanéité habite aussi ses œuvres récentes. Rondes de nuit comme Rembrandt, mais aussi comme des rondes de police le soir dans les cités. Dans le monde d’aujourd’hui, la mise en scène du pouvoir est-elle en train de prendre le dessus sur celle de la contestation ? Parmi les nouvelles œuvres de Clément Cogitore, certaines photographies, très mises en scènes, relèvent presque plus de l’univers du théâtre que de celui du cinéma. Au centre d’un triptyque photographique à la surface particulièrement brillante, se dresse un homme à cheval. On songe à une armure, mais on devine progressivement la tenue d’un CRS anti-émeutes; l’oeuvre s’intitule «Le chevalier noir ». S’agit-il d’un reflet lointain de la Bataille de San Romano, ou bien d’un extrait de catalogue d’uniformes pour les forces de l’ordre ? Comme dans un écho, une performance avait été organisée à la Villa Médicis : un véritable cavalier se promenait dans les jardins en tenant à la main un fumigène rouge, message de détresse en total décalage avec le décor alentour. D’un côté, un autre panneau montre un déjeuner sur l’herbe éclairé par un feu de bois entre bandits de grand chemin. Pourtant ce ne sont pas des personnages du 18ème siècle, mais des Anonymous d’aujourd’hui, activistes portant des masques blancs inspirés du film V pour Vendetta et faisant référence à la figure de Guy Fawkes, conspirateur anglais du XVII°. . De l’autre côté, une jeune fille, plongée dans l’obscurité d’une chambre, et dont le visage n’est éclairé que par l’écran d’un téléphone portable, évoque la Vierge de l’annonciation. Une ombre derrière un rideau rouge pourrait être l’ange descendant dans les drapés (baroques) du lit défait. Entre action, réaction et transmission : est-on dans la Bible ou dans une révolution ? Au centre, comme pris sous les stroboscopes, Julian Assange est filmé dans une boîte de nuit de Reykjavík en train de danser – image de la solitude et peut-être aussi de la liberté. Il s’agit d’un ready-made vidéo issu d’Internet. Les images tournent dans une boucle parfaite, comme une danse chamanique. Il est presque toujours question de sacré dans les œuvres de Clément Cogitore, comme en témoigne Ex-voto, une photographie montée sur un caisson lumineux dont les néons vacillent. On y voit des figurines religieuses issues d’une vitrine napolitaine, supports de croyances et de superstitions. Ces objets évoquent aussi la raideur, progressivement mise en mouvements, du premier cinéma. La tonalité de la peinture classique religieuse se poursuit dans un diptyque, cinématographique et pictural à la fois, de photographies à la chambre : une tête vue de derrière, on ne devine que quelques mèches de cheveux, et un pied nu, pris de côté, fragment d’un corps en train de s’éloigner. De la scène d’annonciation du triptyque à Noli me tangere, le profane se mêle au sacré, le mobile à l’immobile, et le visible à l’invisible. Clément Cogitore compare cette chorégraphie à la mise en mouvement permise par le style baroque. Puis, une photographie, dont on se demande presque si ce n’est pas un tableau, clôt le parcours. C’est une fenêtre qui semble murée, extrait d’une peinture de Piero della Francesca, plaque de béton, support de projection de nos fantasmes, ou simplement écran de cinéma ? Enfin, une vidéo montre des loups enfermés dans un no-man’s-land, sur une musique de Monteverdi. Terrain de jeux d’enfants ou paysage fantastique ? Un indice éclaire finalement la nature de cet espace. Memento Mori est l’épilogue de l’exposition.
Le texte en anglais
La vision des films de Clément Cogitore permet de se débarrasser définitivement de certaines classifications, qui accompagnent encore les discours prenant en charge le domaine de l’image en mouvement. Ses films balaient en effet avec tranquillité la question des distinctions entre fiction et documentaire, entre cinéma et télévision, entre pellicule et vidéo… Nous est ainsi offert le plaisir de plonger de plain-pied dans les voies alternatives que creusent ces films, libérés des cadres préétablis. Les motifs, atmosphères et obsessions qui hantent, déjà, le travail de Clément Cogitore lui sont résolument singuliers, et naissent sans doute de cet affranchissement disciplinaire. Ce n’est d’ailleurs pas un hasard si la représentation – symbolique ou pas – de la frontière revient avec régularité dans ses films : des frontières à traverser, à fuir, desquelles regarder le monde, pointer son fusil… Dans des films à venir, ce motif s’impose encore : suivre des migrants vers Calais ou des soldats en Afghanistan – encore des lignes de front. Le cinéma est un moyen de traverse, il sert sans difficulté les enjeux (politiques autant que plastiques) de la clandestinité : il a tout à voir avec l’obscurité, les ombres, auxquelles s’ajoute un soupçon de magie. Travel(ing) transforme une autoroute en salle de projection : en pleine nuit, l’arrière d’un camion se fait écran, accueille les images d’une autre route, projetées depuis le camion qui le suit. Le geste tient à la fois de la prestidigitation et de la précision mécanique. La poésie de la proposition est extrêmement jouissive. Dans Ex voto aussi le dispositif se donne à lire : une photographie – une Vierge de pacotille exposée en vitrine – reproduite entre deux plaques de verre est illuminée par six néons qui, derrière l’image, sont soumis à l’aléatoire, au battement. Quelque chose ne fonctionne pas idéalement dans cette scène de cinéma primitif où les images, leurs usages, leur exposition font dériver le sens plus qu’ils ne l’enferment. Dans la tension induite par une mécanique volontairement défaillante se donne à lire un cinéma en alerte, qui dérange notre repos critique. Burning Cities est un hommage aux « pratiques incendiaires » – émeutes, fêtes populaires, célébrations ou offensives. De l’obscurité nocturne naissent les images : le cinéma célèbre la nuit. Spectateur, Clément Cogitore cite la série américaine The Wire et les films d’Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Les grands écarts comptent autant que les identités : ces deux références confient au cinéma la construction d’une scène entière, complexe, dont le côté obscur ne serait pas tu, mais au contraire, déplié et offert aux regards. L’artiste a alors raison d’imaginer un monde dans lequel on apprendrait aux enfants, à l’école, autant à lire et à écrire, qu’à monter les images entre elles. Un nouvel alphabet.