Eric Baudelaire Unfinished Business
After having presented The Secession Sessions at the Bétonsalon in Paris and the Bergen Kunsthall, in Norway, this November Éric Baudelaire will show at the Fridericianum in Kassel. This is an occasion to revisit the last decade in the development of a challenging body of work comprised of constellations in which film occupies an increasingly important place.
Eric Baudelaire has moved around a lot. His journey has taken him from the U.S., where he was born to French parents in 1973, to France, where he lives today; from geopolitical scholarship and anti-capitalist activism to art; and from photography to objects and film. But some things have remained constant: a desire to stick uncompromisingly to the complexity of reality; a method using multiple modes and perspectives; and a ceaseless interrogation of the possibilities and powers of images and narratives.
The Secession Sessions is the second part of a project launched more than a decade ago about Abkhazia, a break-away from Georgia that today is recognized by only a handful of countries, including Russia. One of his first series of photos, États imaginés (2004-2005), was devoted to the birth of that Caucasian republic. Then, wanting to follow up on the construction of this paradoxical state, he went back there to make Letters to Max (2014), a feature-length film based on his correspondence with the former Abkhazian minister of foreign affairs Maxim Gvinjia, who answered the questions the artist put to him by mail every day in late 2012. Some are personal, others theoretical. Some are about Abkhazia, others about Baudelaire’s upcoming film shoot. The last, with no reply, casts doubt on the reality of Baudelaire’s project. “Did you get my letters, Max?” he pleads.
But Baudelaire is not trying to create a sterile confusion. His work is solidly based on reality. He understands its complexity and ambiguity, and refuses to reduce it to objective facts and verifiable, unequivocal claims. While he retains the chronological form of his university research (chronologies that, along with other documents gathered in a booklet, can be used to supplement his exhibitions, as the Synagogue de Delme), he has rejected the clarity demanded by geopolitical theories and tools. He prefers to respond to complexity with complexity, and even generate confusion. More particularly, inspired by Peter Watkins’s The War Game, a 1965 docu-drama about a nuclear attack on the UK and its consequences, Baudelaire went beyond an ambiguous mix of fact and fiction, and instead used that film’s factographic method (reporting on facts, when there is no image or document to do the job, by inventing them, with that fabrication producing the effect of truth).(1) Thus he refuses to distinguish between documentary and fiction, mediums that, in his eyes, have equal value. They are complementary in our apprehension of reality, and, further, both constitutive of our way of producing accounts of it. In between the two parts of his long-term work on Abkhazia, Baudelaire made works of an apparent heterogeneous character, organized into thematic constellations while at the same time retaining their autonomy. One of these constellations is based on 9/11, an event that he witnessed but did not feel the need to photograph. September 11 and its consequences made their appearance in his work five years later. The two year-long project was called Circumambulation (2006). Baudelaire circled around Ground Zero with two cameras, one pointed at the ground and the other toward the absent towers. Like this video, the other works in this cycle were also about the event and its representation. When screened at the Elizabeth Dee gallery in New York in 2007, Circumambulation was accompanied by a quote from Leonardo Da Vinci about how to paint a battle, which is a description, in a way, of an absent image, since Da Vinci’s painting The Battle of Anghiari has been lost. These absences are paired with the overload of images in the photographic diptych The Dreadful Details (2006), a deliberately artificial contemporary history tableau full of artistic and journalistic references. The video Sugar Water (2007) synthesized this polarity by decomposing the time of an event, in this case an exploding car, to foreground the polysemy of images. To rephrase Jean-Luc Godard, there is no such thing as a just (in the sense of perfectly accurate) image, there are just images. These images, with their uncertain character and meaning, could as easily come from a TV commercial or an action movie (Baudelaire argues that before 9/11 such images were the sole province of cinema) as an accident, vandalism or a terrorist attack.
Baudelaire’s other constellation of work concerns the concept of anabasis, which is also a form of circular motion but, in this case, riskier. Simultaneously a wandering into the new and self-withdrawal, here the word anabasis designates above all a transformative experience. During a residency in Japan, Baudelaire transformed images in the manner of an anabasis. First, he traveled with blank film which, when he returned to his point of departure, bore the marks of the airport x-rays it had been subjected to ( Anabasis X-rayograms, 2007-2009). Then he came back to France carrying images from Western art magazines whose status as art objects was to be restored when displayed in an art space, after having been declared obscene by the Japanese censors, who allowed them to be imported only after the scratching out ( bokashi) of details that “unnecessarily excite or stimulate sexual desire.” ( Of Signs & Senses, 2009). Baudelaire’s reflection on anabasis soon led him to the fate of Masao Adachi, Fusako Shigenobu and May, the latter’s daughter. Adachi and Shigenobu were
members of the Japanese Red Army who fought in Lebanon alongside the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. They were arrested and brought back to Japan; May came back on her own. This encounter gave birth to the film L’Anabase de May et Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi et 27 années sans images,( 2011) which weaves together the narratives of Adachi, a script writer and experimental filmmaker who went over to the armed struggle and continued to make movies about it, and May Shigenobu, who had lived clandestinely until the age of 27 ("27 years without images"). Her life was comprised of a succession of identities (for a long time she didn’t know her real name) and cover stories, so that her very existence was almost fictional. The feeling of uncertainty is reinforced by the relationship between the narratives and the images, a central question in Baudelaire’s films that here gives rise to a double ambiguity, temporal and geographic. Sometimes out of sync and sometimes not, the off-screen voices of May and Adachi (whose accounts were recorded several years apart), accompany archive images and photos taken years after the recording. Shot in Super-8, they seem to recall a distant past and thus make up for the absence of images of May’s underground life and the loss (due to bombardments) of the films Adachi made in Lebanon. This temporal interweaving, characteristic of Baudelaire’s other movies, goes along with geographic uncertainty. The alternating montage of footage shot in Lebanon and Japan ends up blurring the difference and leaves viewers in an intermediary space.
By bringing together the speech of two closely associated but different people, this film also indicates that only multiple points of view can make it possible to grasp the complexity of reality. This is another recurring characteristic of Baudelaire’s work, as can be seen in the exhibition The Secession Sessions. His letters, which did reach their addressee, were shown at the Bétonsalon, and the film Letters to Max was projected. But vi- sitors could short-circuit the artist, bypassing his point of view, by talking directly with Max, who was invited to the show to meet with them in what was called the “Abkhazia Anambassade. “Also as part of the exhibition, visitors could attend talks given by practitioners of various disciplines. There is not much distance between this kind of invitation and taking part in the making of the artwork itself. With his taste for alterity and interest in the potential fertility of constraints, this is a step that Baudelaire likes to take. Thus he has developed a protocol for sharing the status of author. While in residence in Clermont-Ferrand, Baudelaire heard that a Michelin factory was being moved to India. He asked Indian photographer Anay Mann to make photos similar to his own ( Site Displacement / Déplacement de site, 2007). More recently, for The Ugly One (2013), a feature film about the fragmented memory of a terrorist incident in Beirut, an echo of L’Anabase..., Baudelaire came to an agreement with Adachi, once again turned script writer for the occasion, about the starting point for a scenario, but refrained from reading the final version until a few days before the shoot. Since Adachi’s scenario was impossible to film, the protocol obliged him to take literally François Truffaut’s axiom about shooting against the script then editing against the footage. Consequently, Adachi’s voiceover, very much present at the beginning of the movie, fades out and the characters are allowed to move between the script writer and the director in their quest for an impossible clarity. After the past decade, having completed the two cycles Circumambulation andL’Anabase and left open the Abkhazia series, Baudelaire seems to want to articulate his practice between two opposite poles. On the one hand, complex feature films that are difficult to make (he is working on drama in Abkhazia) and meant to be shown in a theater as well as a monitor. At Kassel, for example, the projections of L'Anabase... and The Ugly One will be accompanied by installations. On the other, autonomous pieces that require few resources to make but whose spirit, like Robert Filliou’s work, is highly charged poetically and politically. Baudelaire has already made a number of such works, including Re
fusons le monde de ceux qui ont (Reject the world of those who have, 2010), a photo of graffiti whose radicalism resides in its unfinishedness, and Everything is Political (2011), a pile of books all bearing the title “Unfinished Business,” a metaphor for the state of the world, and this artist’s practice as well.
Translation, L-S Torgoff
(1) Eric Baudelaire, “Puissances du faux (journal),” “Que peut une image?,” Les carnets du BAL, no. 4.
« Everything is Political ». 2011. Livres et enregistrement de la dernière phrase de chaque livre. (Court. de l’artiste). Books with recordings of the last sentence
« Letters to Max ». 2014. Film, 103’. (Court. de l’artiste)