COMPOSITE MEMORIES: JEAN-FRANÇOIS PODEVIN’S TIME MACHINES By Colin Gardner
Only the signs of art are immaterial. - Gilles Deleuze[i]
photo by Eric Stoner curator Andrea Harris McGee
It’s highly significant that when Sigmund Freud finally came to describe the spatio-temporal organization of the human psyche (and by extension, the memory traces laid down within it) in the final section of The Interpretation of Dreams, he employed machine-like metaphors, describing the psyche as both a ‘psychic apparatus’ and as ‘a compound instrument, to the component parts of which we will give the name of “agencies”, or (for the sake of greater clarity) “systems.”’[ii]
For Freud, like his contemporary Henri Bergson, the body was a sensory-motor apparatus, a conductor placed between the exterior objects and stimuli which act on it and those which it influences, whereby incoming perceptions are translated into immediate motor actions by the intercession of memories. The latter are called up to receive perceptual input (e.g. a projectile heading your way) and meet it with the mnemic trace of the appropriate motor response (e.g. duck). What is important for both Freud and Bergson is ‘not how perception arises, but how it is limited, since it should be the image of the whole, and is in fact reduced to the image of that which interests you.’[iii] Perception is thus highly selective, editing out from a stream or aggregate of images those which memory deems relevant to the body’s immediate motor needs. It is therefore memory that gives perception its subjective character and it is, for this reason, highly constructive in nature.
In his latest installation - Composite Memories – Jean-François Podevin has taken Freud’s metaphors to heart, translating and reconstructing the mnemic traces of the psychic system into a series of seven free-standing, interactive sculptural ‘machines’ that he has called ‘Stochasticons’ or ‘display contraptions’ that evoke the postcard dispensers commonly found in tourist shops or airports. Each machine is of equal dimensions (75.5” high, by 43"wide, by 1' deep ) containing four canvas belts placed side by side. Each belt is overlaid by fourteen, postcard-like memory-images (10” by 7.25”) which can be rotated individually by four disc shaped handles placed at the corners of the contraption, thus allowing the spectator to change the combination (and thus connection) of pictures to form a wide variety of different narrative and spatio-temporal permutations. A thin fiberglass guide helps align a single row of four, much like the horizontal chain of symbols on a one-armed bandit slot machine.)
Podevin is highly self-conscious of the structural and systemic ramifications of his installation, on both macro- and micro- levels. Firstly, the machines are configured in the gallery space in a basic octagonal shape (symbolic of periodic renewal) with each side representing a compass point. After entering the installation through a threshold gate at the northeast side of the installation, the spectator can move left, within the inner circle, and encounter the machines as a form of macro-cosmos, each with its own philosophical and metaphysical meaning, thematic color and geographic significance. Thus, for example, the first machine, Fiat Lux (‘Let there be light’) is positioned on the east side of the octagon and represents the beginning of the cycle (light, origin, creation, the sunrise, the monad). The second machine, Belly of the Fish faces southeast and is dyadic, representing by turns the pair, twins, union, division, polarity, the sexes, illusion and lie, but also the creative tension produced by oppositions. The third, Desert Voices, is triadic and points south, representing the triangle, the arch, thresholds, and the binding power of the dialectic. Machines four through seven (The Alpha and the Omega, On the Beach, Occident, andInstance of Eternity), continue this metaphysical path from monad to multiplicity, symbolizing, by turns, the principles of uncertainty (southwest), regeneration (west), the collective unconscious (northwest) and finally, the end of the spectrum – the instantaneity and incommensurability of both harmony and eternity, represented by the northern light.
Photo J.F. Podevin Cuesta College Gallery-December 2010 Curator: Timothy Anderson
This spatial structure changes every few days over the course of the exhibition as the machines are reconfigured in different geometrical orders. Thus they move from the octagon to staggered and seven-branch formations, followed by single curve and single line arrangements. The objective is to underline both the inescapability of macro-structures inherent in both constructing and predetermining meaning – as rational beings we cannot help but attempt to make reasonable sense of things -but also to express and celebrate the constantly changing fluidity and formlessness of the random relationship between each of the 365 memory images on display, whether we read across and between the machines as a group or within a single internal narrative formation.
However, it is on the micro-level of the individual Stochasticon that Podevin’s project most closely resembles the broader structures of language as a whole. The artist is quick to point out that each of the composed images is based on a ‘+’ sign compositional format set against a white ground, which echoes the structural relationship of the postcards to the machine as a whole. If we follow Roman Jakobson’s famous vertical and horizontal model of language formulated in the 1930s, the vertical belts allude to the paradigmatic and metaphorical axis, where each element is selected from a possible inventory of words/images that may be substituted for one another in any given set (in this case by simply turning the machine handle). Roland Barthes illustrated the effects by alluding to the fashion system – shirt, blouse, sweater and t-shirt are simple substitutions for types of top, in the same way that a skirt, pants and shorts are paradigms of bottoms. In contrast, the changing horizontal strip of images across the four belts is an axis of combination or syntagm/metonymy which produces a narrative chain (in fashion, for example, a shoes, skirt, blouse, jacket, hat combination) that is potentially endless in its spatio-temporal extension. It’s no accident that Podevin’s overt arrangement of images into Jakobson’s twin linguistic axes is also applicable to that of mnemic traces in the psyche for, following Jacques Lacan’s argument that the unconscious is structured like a language, we can draw structural equivalences of metaphor and metonymy to forms of condensation and displacement, two of Freud’s key structuring components of the dreamwork. Podevin’s machines are thus not only analogous to linguistic systems based on langue and parole, but also open interactive invitations to compose memories as explicit dream constructions.
Let us take at random, for example, an array of four Stochasticon images, reading from left to right. We see: 1) Three pairs of naked women’s legs protruding like synchronized swimmers from the ocean between two, semi-anthropomorphic rocks; 2) Three abstracted women at three identical windows; 3) A Madonna and child between two vertical color hue strips entitled ‘The Many Coloured Child’; and 4) Another, ghostly Madonna and child in the center of two interconnecting circles superimposed on a mesh-covered heart. The text above and below the latter reads ‘Obscur Objet Du Désir’, the bottom text inverted like that on a Tarot card. Using a little simple free-association, we might conjure a series of connotations that connects water with birth, women with situations connected to both looking and being looked-at, and a transition from pre-Christian symbology (the Goddess Aphrodite’s birth from the ocean) to that of the Madonna as both a Christian icon and symbol of high Renaissance painting.
1 2 3 4
These loose connections are typical of dream logic insofar as they generate a chain of desire (or, more accurately, a desire for desire), but defy definitive semantic closure. However, a simple change of one image - by turning the handle of the far right-hand belt – produces a major paradigm shift: a Coca-Cola bottle centered between two halves of an orange, one in yellow, the other in blue. We’re are now in the world of Pop Art (Andy Warhol’s silkscreens) and advertising culture (specifically photography), reconfiguring the previous female water and iconic motifs in terms of thirst-quenching drinks (“Coke adds life”), phallic erectness, postmodern pastiche and conspicuous consumption. The object of desire is no longer obscure – indeed it is all the more obvious because readily available (as Warhol once put it, ‘A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it’). The whole tenor of the narrative chain has been shifted by one simple paradigm shift, and the dreamwork’s logic (and by extension the memories it triggers) has been irrevocably reconfigured.
1 2 3 4
This is, of course, highly evocative of Marcel’s Proust’s grapplings with voluntary and involuntary memory in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and Podevin’s long-term history with this art project has obvious Proustian overtones. In fact, Composite Memories began unconsciously twenty five years ago when Podevin immigrated to the United States from France. Like most émigrés, he was unable to afford regular trips back home so he began to seek out particular places in his adopted country which could act as springboards for constructing childhood memories because of their verisimilitude to the original location and the event that it evoked. He was later able to afford regular trips home and started documenting his visits via journals, sketchbooks, photographs, etc., which later provided the raw material for the Stochasticon postcards. Thus the cosmology of the installation is also a reflection and expression of Podevin’s own childhood memories: the North was where most of his family lived (Lille, Valenciennes, England); West was the direction of sea-side vacations and Podevin’s eventual emigration to the United States; South was the exotic locale of his parents’ dream vacations – Morocco, Italy, Spain, the Sahara; while East evoked night and darkness, whether from having to get up for school in the morning or worrying about the spectre of a Soviet invasion while growing up during the Cold War.
However, over time, Podevin began to experience the reversed, mirror effect of these images: visits to France gradually began to evoke memories of California, and it became increasingly difficult to separate the two images as two distinct and separate lives. Indeed, any identification of personal identity with a concrete memory started to be called into question because the specific memories were never ‘pure’ – they were invariably composites, rife with ambivalence. Podevin realised this when trying to recall an early childhood memory:
It was a scene that took place at the terrace of a stout looking “chalet” hotel-restaurant, at the edge of a pine forest, overlooking a lake, on the horizon of which the sun was setting. I recalled my parents, my uncle and aunts, two grandmothers, and my brother Jean-Paul sitting around a large round café table, having a parting drink, and discussing the directions to their respective way home. The situation was poignant. I was experiencing most of the people I loved in an unusual and breathtaking setting. The passage from day to night when lights are switched on while it is still daylight, the forlorn cry of the swallows before night time, the footsteps of the waiter on the gravel, were all a beautiful and sad scene, because in the following moments, day would become night and everyone would leave, following the harrowing goodbyes. From the “road side” of the building from which we exited, the deepening darkness flooded the forest revealing in the coldness of its obscurity a sense of inaccessible places, and made me fathom every kilometer that separated Paris from Lille or Valenciennes.
Although every family member who was present later recalled the incident, no one could agree on a specific time or place. It turned out that the scene had happened several times on different occasions with different connotations. In short it was a composite memory, built up from condensed and displaced elements akin to Freud’s dreamwork, but no less vivid (or real) for that. In fact, one could argue that because it was unconsciously constructed over a long period of time and represented cyclical and repetitive images/perceptions, it represented not only a profound expression of Podevin’s rite of passage from childhood to maturity, but more importantly an index of his transition from a mere ‘channeller’ of involuntary recall to a re-fashioner of memory as a creative, intuitive artist in the true Proustian sense.
It is significant that the Stochasticon images, in contrast to the flood of involuntary memories which engulfed Podevin when he tried to recall the hotel-restaurant scene, closely resemble framed photographic snapshots. In his discussion of the different types of memory in Proust, Gilles Deleuze equates this form of recollection (images as instantanés) with voluntary memory. It is an inferior form of search for lost time because unlike art, the true, transformative form of Proustian intelligence, it fails to resurrect and recapture the past directly in the dynamic, durational light of a present need and a future act (an affirmative becoming), but merely as a series of dead, ‘past-presents’, drained of both affect and action. According to Deleuze,
Voluntary memory proceeds from an actual present to a present which ‘has been,’ to something which was present and is no longer. The past of voluntary memory is therefore doubly relative: relative to the present which it has been, but also to the present with regard to which it is now past. Which is to say that this memory does not apprehend the past directly: it recomposes it with different presents.[iv
Voluntary memory thus proceeds by sequences of frozen snapshots which form a series of former presents that now happen to be in the past. What escapes the spectator at this primary stage of the images’ construction is the past’s being as past. We proceed as if the past could only be constituted after it has first been marked as present. Each past-present moment constructed through the postcards has to wait for a new present to arrive so that the previous one can pass by, much like the way we mark duration by tearing off the days of a desk calendar. For Podevin, like Proust’s Marcel, the past can only preserve itself as a virtual series of past-presents which haunt the actual present without transforming it into something different. Their problem is the same: how to save for themselves the past as it is preserved in-itself so that they can actively transform it in the act of narration?
The answer lies in the harnessing of memories as a form of apprenticeship in order to transform them into art. Podevin mines his past not by attempting to consciously and wilfully capture it as it really happened (or by falling into the black hole of involuntary memory that, in the form of biting into the Madeleine, threatened to overwhelm the unfortunate Marcel), but by transferring it into the higher form of collaborative art. For, as Deleuze argues, Proust’s work is not oriented to the past and the discoveries of memory, but to the future and the progress of an apprenticeship. What is important is that the hero does not know certain things at the start, gradually learns them, and finally receives an ultimate revelation. Necessarily then, he suffers disappointments: he ‘believed,’ he suffered under illusions; the world vacillates in the course of apprenticeship.[v]
This higher form can only be accomplished by unleashing the connotative (and by extension, immaterial) power of the Stochasticons – the horizontal axes of free-association. By giving up his personal and subjective memories to the (re)constructive powers of the spectator, Podevin doesn’t relinquish the power of his creativity but rather unleashes it to the extreme, for it is only by expanding the composite qualities of memory that true art can be attained – i.e. art as mutual transformation between producer and receiver. ‘What is an essence, as revealed in the work of art?’ asks Deleuze. ‘It is a difference, the absolute and ultimate Difference. Difference is what constitutes being, what makes us conceive being. That is why art, insofar as it manifests essences, is alone capable of giving us what we sought in vain from life.’[vi] This is an internal, qualitative difference: where monads are transformed into multiplicities, machines into metonymies, and memories multiply into as many worlds as there are artists like Podevin (and his audience) to conjure them.
Colin Gardner is Professor of Critical Theory and Interdisciplinary Media at UC Santa Barbara. His recent monograph on the blacklisted film director, Joseph Losey was recently published by Manchester University Press in their “British Film Makers Series.” He is currently writing a book on the Czech-born director, Karel Reisz for the same imprint.
[i] Gilles Deleuze, Proust and Signs, trans. Richard Howard, New York: George Braziller, 1972, p. 39
[ii] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey, Harmondsworth,
Penguin, 1991, p. 685.
[iii] Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer,
New York: Zone Books, 1991, p. 40.
[iv]Deleuze, Proust and Signs, p. 56.
[v] Ibid, p. 25
[vi] Ibid, p. 41.